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Lady Knight Volant

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Part I – Samradh 

June – August, 461 HE

  

Chapter One — Returning

15–18 June

 

“We can’t go much further tonight, Kel.”

            Trudging beside Peachblossom in the summer dusk the grim-faced young woman in armour looked wearily round at Neal, walking beside Magewhisper. Each warhorse bore three young children, and though neither animals nor people were complaining she could see how tired all were. Behind her many children were nodding as they rode or stumbling as they walked, and the half-starved adult refugees were close to exhaustion. Looking ahead she could see Dom’s squad on point were faring better, but the sparrows who had been scouting for them had begun to roost on the warhorses’ manes. Uinse and the other convict soldiers were struggling, and all the dogs had lolling tongues. Kel’s own legs were a burning, leaden ache, but had she been on her own she would have walked until she dropped.

            “No, I know.”

            Neal grimaced sympathy with the frustration in her voice. Since leaving Castle Rathhausak in flames behind them four days before they had seen no sign of pursuit, but just being in enemy territory made his shoulder-blades itch. For Kel the responsibility of command made it worse, and he knew she had despite everything hoped to reach Tortallan soil today, or at least to contact the smugglers. When in mid-morning Tobe had been able to summon from the river-meadows the Scanran horses he’d persuaded to wait there a week before, on their outward journey, Neal had himself hoped that with extra mounts they might make it today. But logistics dictated otherwise. Driven as all were by fear of pursuit and hope of sanctuary, sixteen knights and soldiers, one-hundred-and-eighty-three rescued children ranging from infancy to the cusp of adulthood, three injured Tortallan civilians, and more than forty painfully thin Scanran refugees did not—could not—cover ground at more than a walk. Without the scores of horses they’d taken from the stables at Rathhausak it wouldn’t have been even that.

            “We need to be in better shape to cross the Vassa anyway. And Mithros knows what the smugglers will say when we show up, especially if the others crossed a few days back.”

            He saw Kel try to summon a grin, then simply nod.

            “I’ve wondered about that. We’re hardly what they bargained for. But the flatboats Stenmun used might be on this side of the Vassa, and I want to take all the horses across if we can. Else we’ll be crawling for another week to reach Mastiff.” Kel stumbled, righting herself with effort and reaching up to steady the five-year-old sitting on her shoulders. “Sorry, Meech,” she murmured, but the boy hadn’t woken from the doze Neal’s healing of his gashed leg had induced.

            “Mmm. Flatboats. Lovely.” Neal’s mind caught up with his mouth, and he frowned. “You think they’ll refuse us help?”

            “No.” Without Meech’s weight and her wound Kel might have shrugged. “We’d have nowhere to go, and I think that old mage would weigh in. But I don’t want to be leaving a trail of IOUs. It won’t help.”

            Neal thought about that, blinking. “Help with what?”

            Kel’s look tried for Yamani-blank but was tinged with emotions he couldn’t identify.

            “With whatever charges we face. Dom and his men are covered by Raoul’s orders, but I don’t know about the rest of us. And there’s the Scanran refugees too—that’s already a hefty bill for food and shelter.”

            Neal blinked again. “Kel, you can’t seriously be worrying about that? We’re heroes, for Mithros’s sake!” His voice was indignant. “We’ve rescued more than four hundred people—I still can’t believe it—and killed almost as many Scanrans. Even the Stump’s not going to punish you for that!”

            Kel sighed, again reaching up to steady Meech. “Who says the decision’ll be in his hands? Neal, every one of us under arms, except Dom and his squad, is guilty of whatever mix of disobedience, mutiny, desertion, and treason General Vanget or the King chooses to charge us with.” Her forehead creased. “I hope and pray you are safe, on your father’s account and as a healer, and I’ve more-or-less persuaded myself that if they don’t charge you they can’t charge Merric, Esmond, or Seaver. And the other ranks and convicts can say they just did as they were ordered.” She grimaced. “But I’m worried for Owen.”

            Neal frowned, surprised by the political flavour and not liking the implications. “And you, Kel? You really think you’ll face a charge of some kind? What about your father’s account? Your parents are central to the Yamani treaty.”

            “Maybe so, but I can’t hide behind the treaty. It might compromise Cricket and Yuki. And Roald. They have a bad enough time of it already.”

            “What? Why does Yuki have a bad time of it?”

            Kel shook her head, as much as Meech’s dangling legs allowed. “Just as Yamanis, Neal—funny-faced barbarians, remember, defiling the realm. Do you really want to add association with treason?”

            “Only the dimmest conservatives could think that.”

            This time Kel did manage a crooked grin. “Who are among the most important and vocal, Meathead.” The grin faded. “Think about it, Neal. If the King knows—and I bet he does—the Council will be involved, and some of the worst conservatives are on it. What kind of golden opportunity do you think my undoubted mutiny and arguable treason offers them?” Neal scowled. “They’ll be drooling for my head. And what kind of defence is rescuing commoners? Bringing extra foreign mouths to feed when we can barely feed our own?”

            Neal’s scowl became thunderous. “And killing the necromancer whose machines were Scanra’s best weapons and whom everyone’s been searching for since the war began? Not to mention burning Maggot’s castle. Kel, I know you don’t like Jonathan, and Mithros knows I don’t blame you, but he’s not stupid. You’ve done a great thing, and he’ll see that.” He paused, looking at Kel, before adding shrewdly, “He’ll also know, as will the Stump and Vanget, that if he tries to punish you as a sop to conservatives who haven’t left Corus since the war began, he’ll have a lot of very unhappy people to contend with.”

            Kel shook her head minutely again. “The Lioness can’t shield me from this, Neal, nor should she. She has her own duty to discipline.”

            “I didn’t mean my esteemed former knight mistress, Kel, or even Raoul, Buri, the Wildmage, and Master Numair—though their collective anger is … well, unimaginable, actually.” He was rewarded with a ghostly grin. “I didn’t even mean all the Tortallan refugees you’ve just rescued, though I bet they’d be pretty vocal too.”

            “So who did you mean?”

            “The Own and the rank-and-file of the army.”

            Kel’s eyebrows rose. “Who have what to do with the price of peas in Persopolis?”

            Neal managed a tired snort. “You have no idea how they think of you, have you?” Needing no answer he pushed on. “You know the troops assigned to Haven as well as any commander can, and the refugees in your care. But you only see the rank-and-file of the army or the Own in passing or in battle, except for Dom’s squad, and you think they’re exceptions because you happened to be in command when you all met that first killing device. But I see them when they’re injured, or visiting friends who are, or trying to scrounge herbs and balms. And I know what they say about you. Even what they feel.”

            They trudged on for a bit, feeling the strain as the trail rose towards a bend. Neal entertained himself watching the struggle on Kel’s face. She was so tired—and, he suspected, in so much pain from her half-healed wound and morbid thoughts—that her Yamani mask was barely working, and he had long ago learned to read her blankness better than most. It wasn’t until the trail flattened, narrowing as it turned into a wood, that she gave in.

            “So what do they think and even feel, Wise Healer?”

            The mock-title stung a little, but Mithros knew she needed all the comfort she could get, though he thought her fears exaggerated.

            “They admire you.” He tried for a healer’s detached tone. “Love you, even, as a symbol, yes, but also as a reality. ‘Protector of the Small’ will just cap it.” Her bewildered look was pleasing, and a rueful memory drifted into his mind of Tobe explaining with barely suppressed laughter that Peachblossom savaged him so often because ‘he likes the noise you make when you’re bit’. “Kel, besides the Own and the soldiers at Haven, a lot of companies have rotated through Steadfast and Mastiff since this war began. The sentries and night patrols see you waving that glaive every morning before dawn. Soldiers talk to one another, you know, and they hear from the refugees too, about the way you’ve trained them and how you run Haven.”

            Kel blinked. “They do?”

            “Of course they do, Kel. More than half the Haven adults are women, many single or widowed, and those are in short supply at army forts in wartime. With all the training in self-defence you’ve given them, they’re also pretty picky about whom they see. So word passes—along with other things—and by now I shouldn’t think there’s a soldier on this front who doesn’t know about the Lady Knight Commander.” He summoned strength to wave a hand airily. “And it’s not that freak-show woman warrior thing you hate so much. It’s the noble lady who backs her commoners against all comers, the green commander whose first act was to throw her predecessor’s whip into the midden, the woman who rescued an orphaned horsemage from an abusive master”—he grinned—“and the twelve-year-old page who took the mean-dog skinner Breakbone Dell squarely in the tripes.”

            Neal cursed himself as Kel’s wide eyes darkened with painful memory of Gil Lofts, who had spread that tale and burned in the Tortallan pyre at Rathhausak, but he was saved further mistakes as they rounded another bend to emerge from trees into a small valley with a stream chuckling through its meadow. Dom’s scouts had halted on the far side and the man himself waited a dozen yards ahead, eyebrows raised in silent question. Kel nodded and without breaking stride swung round to walk backwards, producing a version of her command voice that made everyone listen without stopping them in their tracks.

            “People! We’re entering a small valley with a stream, and we’ll camp here tonight. Children, keep together, older caring for younger, and find a latrine area. Don’t bother digging trenches, but make sure it’s downstream of the camp. Owen’s in charge. Dom and his squad on sentry duty. Uinse, you and yours on KP, and gather dry firewood.” There were tired cheers, and Kel smiled. “We’ve seen no-one and we need hot food, but douse them as soon as cooking’s done. Civilians, please help the cooks and children as you can, but stay inside the perimeter. Tobe and Zerhalm, the horses, ponies, and dogs. Any blisters, sores, or footrot to Sir Neal. All clear?”

            A lone voice called back. “And what are you doing, Lady Kel?”

            Kel scowled magnificently. “Writing a report with no paper and less ink, Jacut. Elsewise the army’ll stop in its tracks, you know that.”

            A murmuring laugh went up, and Neal grinned. “See, Kel? I told you.”

 

* * * * *

 

Kel had actually completed her report the night before, unable to sleep, and to update it with the extra horses and absence of Scanran troops throughout the day took only a moment. Then she wandered round, checking with Tobe and Zerhalm that the animals were alright and feeding sleepy sparrows berries she’d collected during the day. She also slipped Peachblossom a wrinkled apple she’d kept back from her own rations, and leaned against his warm bulk before forcing herself back to her rounds. After making sure the firewood was bone dry, and seeing the cooks start to heat soup and stew game the dogs had caught during the day, she headed over to the children, trying to radiate good cheer. Their courage amazed her, but despite the lack of complaint she knew all were suffering not only the pains of riding and walking for so long but also the lingering terrors of their abduction. Owen had been wonderful with them throughout the journey, and even now was patiently helping some five- and six-year-olds scared of the dark yards to the latrine area, but he was deeply grieved by the loss of Happy and not his usual, ebullient self at all.  With Loesia and other older ones Kel cuddled and played with the littles, offering the solace of attention and her determination that they would all soon be safe.

            After a while, having seen to the adults’ needs, Neal joined them, checking for blisters and bruises and pulsing bursts of his Gift into small hands, thighs, and feet. After dealing with some grim saddle-sores on a mute eight-year-old he sat beside Kel as she finished a story about Daine winning a snow-fight one Midwinter by transforming herself into an ice-bear.

            “I remember that. Master Numair was still shouting about her cheating when she rolled him into a snowdrift.” He grinned at the avid children. “The complaints went on until Imbolc, at least! But what of you, Lady Knight? Any blisters to be healed? And how’s your shoulder? I’ve still some juice left.”

            Kel smiled wryly. Neal had half-recovered from draining his Gift at Rathhausak, saving her as well as Tobe, Saefas, and two of the convicts and trying vainly to save Gil Lofts, but thin rations, little sleep, daily slog, and the constant call for minor healings were no recipe for swift recharge.

            “It’s well enough, Neal.” And hurt abominably. “Save yourself against need. And to get better faster”—she gathered the littles with her eye and they chorused with her—“eat your vegetables!”

            Neal scowled. “Conspiracy! You have no respect! It’s meat I need to be a proper meathead, not all that green stuff.” The hushed giggles of the children were a kind of music, he thought, but as he cudgelled his brains for more jokes to offer Dom came to report.

            “Fires lit, soup heating, rabbits and squirrels stewing nicely, and perimeter secure, Kel. No alarms, but those stormwings who’ve been following us have roosted nearby—again.”

            “The same ones? You’re sure?”

            “Yes. I recognise that female Yamani one who was watching us at the castle.” He frowned. “They’re keeping their distance. And keeping quiet.” A shrug. “Do you want me to try to speak to them?”

            “No.” Kel shook her head. “Leave well alone, and let’s hope they do the same. But make sure all the sentries know where they are, please.”

            “Will do. Food’ll be ready soon, younglings.”

            They cheered quietly as he walked away and Kel marvelled again at their spirit.

            “Alright, then. Everyone ready to eat? Hands and faces washed?”

            By the time the children regathered, soup was ready—watered to stretch, but very welcome just the same. With so many mouths and such pressing haste food was a serious problem, and only the trail rations and cured meats they’d taken from Rathhausak had made it possible for all to have enough to keep going—but supplies for two-hundred-and-forty-six people walking more than a hundred miles over the best part of a week meant packhorses, forcing children who might have ridden to walk and slowing their progress down the Pakkai and Smiskir valleys. The dogs—and the one cat—had helped enormously with rabbits and squirrels they’d brought in, asking only for the guts and lights, but without the boarhound Shepherd, another casualty at Rathhausak, none could take larger game even if they started some. After tonight no soup-balls remained, breakfast would use the last trail rations, and Kel was horribly aware that if the smugglers—or if they were lucky, Tortallan troops—couldn’t feed them tomorrow, she’d have no choice but to slaughter at least one horse. Tobe knew it too, and was grimly determined it wouldn’t come to that.

            The convict ladling out portions of rabbit-and-squirrel stew peered at Kel shrewdly before making sure she got some extra meat, withering her protest with a glance at the visible gauntness of her wrist as she held out her plate. She also received an oversize portion of a tasteless vegetable mass that might once have been roots, and after finishing the few mouthfuls of stew applied herself conscientiously to it with sidelong glances at Neal that drew a scowl from him and laughter from the nearest children.

            “Just think of the advantages, Neal. You’ll never be able to complain about regular vegetables again.”

            His scowl deepened comically. “No vegetables are regular. And advantages for whom?”

            “Yuki, mostly. And everyone who ever eats with you.”

            “Ha. My Yamani rose completely understands the horror of vegetables.” He frowned. “Though why she thinks pickling everything helps is a mystery even to me.”

            Kel laughed. “Yuki made tsukemono? Good for her. Did she tell you there are markets in the Islands that sell nothing else? Just hundreds and hundreds of pickles.”

            “She said something like that, but there can’t really be hundreds of pickles, can there? There aren’t that many different vegetables.”

            “Of course there are. But it’s not just what you pickle, it’s what you pickle it in. There’s brine and vinegar, of course—but Yamanis use sake, cider, beers, oils, and wines of all kinds, and any of those can be specially flavoured. I remember loving the smell the first time I visited a pickle-market, when I sneaked out with the palace cooks who were buying supplies. I think I was six.” She smiled at the memory as she chewed her last, tasteless mouthful, wishing she had some umeboshi now; the tart sweetness of the pickled plums would help anything go down. “Will you and Yuki visit the Islands on honeymoon?”

            Neal’s face softened. “War permitting. After I proposed to her the Lioness helped us speak to her parents, in the fire, but she wants me to meet them properly.”

            “And show you off to her many cousins, I should think, as well as around the palace. You’ll be toast.”

            “A fate I shall meet with my usual wit and dignity.”

            “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

            The banter was cheering, and Kel could see the children relaxing with the warmth in their bellies and the humour in adult voices, but her fears weighed on her as bitterly as a new training-harness. To have exposed herself to a justified call for her head was, she knew all too well, the stupidest thing she could possibly have done, but she also knew that in the same circumstances she’d do it again, unhesitatingly. The possibility of having to make such a decision had been a bruise in her mind ever since the Chamber had shown her its appalling vision of Blayce’s workshop, and one part of her still felt a kind of relief that at least the waiting was over, come what may. But that may was fearful, and at worst might prove a bitter social and political shame for her family as well as a place on Traitor’s Hill for herself. The thought of the pain she might cause those she loved made her cringe, though she hoped and believed her punishment would be kept an army matter. King Jonathan had always preferred clean hands.

            Pushing down the black mood she hauled herself upright, wincing at the stiffness already gathering in her legs, and collected empty bowls from the children to rinse and return to the cooks. Uinse, Jacut, and the other convict soldiers on KP had needed no orders to feed themselves or to keep soup and stew back for Dom’s squad, whom they now relieved on watch. She greeted her first true comrades-in-arms softly as they drifted in from the perimeter, and sat with them companionably as they ate. Fulcher and Lofren were the squad’s first losses since Derom and Symric had been killed at Forgotten Well the year before, and the deaths had hit them hard, especially Dom. Like Owen, he’d been unflagging but without his usual cheer, and her own grief left her feeling she had nothing to offer him in comfort; not that anything anyone could offer would change the facts. The convict squads, issued inferior equipment and far less well trained despite her efforts in the time she and Merric had had charge of them, had suffered much more seriously, losing six of fourteen at Rathhausak as well as the man they’d found hanged by the slavers at Pakkai junction—but they hadn’t been together as long and had yet to develop the intense camaraderie of the Own.

            Clearing his plate, Dom set it down and looked around.

            “Same shifts as last night, and keep an eye on those stormwings.” They all nodded. “Orders for tomorrow, Lady Kel? Straight on to the main crossing or turn off for the smugglers’ den?”

            “Straight on, Dom. We’re too many for the narrow tracks, and it would add miles to the journey. I’m hoping there’ll be flatboats this side of the Vassa, but if they’re on the Tortallan side we’ll have to ask the smugglers to run them across to us.”

            “Makes sense.” He paused. “I’m half-expecting a picket at the crossing, though, if the other lot made it back with the adults. I don’t know how long it would have taken them with so many on foot, but from their trail-sign they’re at least three days ahead of us, so they should have reached Tortall two days ago, latest. Maybe three. And with any luck they’ll have met a patrol and got messengers off. It depends who’s making decisions but I’ll be surprised if a lot of orders haven’t already been given.”

            Kel nodded, having made the same calculations herself. “Let’s hope so. But while I’ve got you all here there is one other thing, because we might not like some of those orders.”

            To her surprise it was Wolset who broke the tense silence.

            “Worried about punishments, Lady Kel? Sir Neal said you was. But he’s right—we’re the heroes, this time.”

            “I hope so, Wolset. And I thank the gods you’re all protected by my Lord’s orders. But however you cut it, Owen and all the knights, including me, are likely to be in hot water. But whatever happens to us I don’t want any of you getting yourselves in trouble protesting.” She held up a hand to forestall retorts. “I mean it. If it is bad, and it might be, it’ll be dangerous to mess with. But what I really wanted to ask you all was to look out for Tobe, if I can’t. Get him to Onua Chamtong, will you? Or to Daine. He’ll be safe and valued there.”

            “We will, Kel. I will. But for once I agree with Sir Meathead—you’re not thinking straight.” Dom’s look was as shrewd as the convict’s who’d served her food. “Almost as if you think you ought to be punished for what happened at Haven, rather than rewarded for an astonishing rescue and killing that godshat mage.”

            He spat aside as Kel blinked surprise at his blasphemy, a rarity despite often colourful language with his men.

            “But I don’t think my Lord’ll see it that way, or even Sir Meathead’s Stump.” Dom stood, stretching. “Nor yet the King. But that’s for later. For now, first shift, on your way, and let Uinse’s boys get some kip. I’ll bed down here until third shift—wake me at need and take no chances. Clear?” There were nods all round. “Walk with me a moment, Kel? I haven’t shown you where the stormwings are.”

            “Of course.” She let him pull her up, feeling even in her bone-weariness a little heartflutter at his touch and the concern in his blue eyes. But nothing showed in her face: she’d realised long ago that her scarred, thickset body could offer nothing like the graceful curves Dom sought out at the Palace, and she wouldn’t risk a crucial friendship over hopeless mooning. As the squad headed back on watch or to their bedrolls, they walked slowly upstream, stopping short of the perimeter where Alden of Uinse’s squad stood guard. The convict’s mark on his forehead showed pale as he turned to look at them, nodding respect before looking outwards again. Their own eyes automatically scanned the meadow and the darker treeline beyond. Dom spoke quietly without turning his head.

            “I’ve been thinking about the reports we need to make, Kel. Not just the combat report, though that’s going to make good reading, but the situation report.” He paused, tensing as an owl hooted in the forests, then eased again. “Real one. Of course the King needs to know about Blayce’s death, if he doesn’t already. But I reckon the story those villagers have to tell ought to be made known, among Scanran soldiers as well as our own.” He glanced at her, then looked at his feet. “Until this week they were just the enemy to me, you know, but now I’m wondering how many of the soldiers we’ve been fighting knew how those killing devices were made. A liegelord who kills his own liegers’ children …”

            “I know, Dom, and I’ll say so, believe me. Burning the castle will mean something to Scanrans too—it’s a blódbeallár challenge, their blood and clan law. Besides, if the villagers are known witnesses as victims of Maggur’s atrocities it’ll secure their protection as well.”

            “Still thinking of others.” His voice was wry. “And what of the commander who rescued them? No, don’t answer. Just tell me if you’re going to bother telling anyone the Chamber of the Ordeal was involved.”

            Kel waited as Wolset passed them on his way to relieve Alden and the convict headed back to camp.

            “That’s tricky, Dom. You saw how Merric and the others reacted to anything about the Chamber. If even my friends don’t really believe me, why should anyone else?” He was silent. “I have to mention Irnai to explain why the villagers were so ready to help us, and anyone who sees her eyes will know she’s one of Shakith’s chosen. But if I start saying the Chamber chose me specially … well, my Lord might believe me, but gods, imagine the fuss and jeering there’d be.” She strove to keep bitterness out of her voice, looking away from him. “You know Stone Mountain and his cronies already claim I’ve corrupted the Chamber by being allowed to enter it, and I’ve just handed them a giant Midsummer gift by inviting any one of three capital charges. I don’t think either saying I’m a special case or admitting to nightmares and hearing voices would help.”

            When she looked back at Dom he was staring at her. “You do have witnesses, you know,” he said gently. “Neal, Owen, and I all heard it speak through Irnai.”

            “And how do you know that was the Chamber?”

            “You said it was …” His voice tailed away. “Oh. Mithros.”

            “Exactly. There’s no proof at all, Dom, unless the Chamber provides some, and I can’t count on that. It’s got no manners anyway.”

            Her grumpiness provoked a short laugh but Dom’s eyes were troubled. “Even so, Kel, promise me you’ll tell my Lord, Lord Wyldon, and the King? They ought to know and the King can truthspell you if he wants.”

            Kel thought about it. “Alright, Dom, those three. But why do you think they need to know? There’s nothing any of them can do about it.”

            It was his turn to look away.

            “I’m not sure, but I feel it’s so.” He hunched inside his filthy tunic. “I’ve never been much for talking of the gods. I’m a soldier. I just get on with what needs doing. But that old mage said the hand of fate was on you, and when I heard that awful voice come out of a little girl I knew the gods were watching us and I think they still are. In any case, the King should know what the Chamber did in case it happens again.”

            “I suppose. And I do promise. Now, where are those stormwings?”

            He accepted the change of subject and gestured up the valley. “About half-a-mile, to the west. Why do you think they’re following us?”

            Kel shook her head. “I don’t know, Dom. They’ve spoken to me twice now. When I was between Haven and Giantkiller one mocked me—well, rebuked me really—for assuming they’d defile a body I found. One of the clerks, who’d bled out. But back at Haven that Yamani female said they were half-sorry to have soiled our dead because it was a refugee camp.” Anger laced her voice. “She also said I was the only Tortallan commander who didn’t let them have the enemy dead, and if I had they might have restrained themselves. That’s partly why I left them the Scanran dead at Rathhausak.”

            “Partly?”

            She sighed. “If anyone ever deserved to be stormwing toys it was Stenmun and his crew. And we couldn’t burn or bury them, so I hoped for a profit on necessity. But I really don’t think the stormwings will try to harm us, and they might even warn us of any Scanrans. This will sound odd, but I think they might be guarding us, in a way. Daine once told me they like children, and feel for them.”

            “They do?”

            “Apparently. She said they have a hard time birthing their own young, and don’t like to see anyone’s mistreated. So maybe we’re in their good books just now.”

            “Huh. You never know what’ll you’ll learn next.” A genuine smile lit his face and her heart fluttered again. “You realise that makes them surprisingly like you? Terrors of the battlefield with soft spots for any youngling in trouble?” He laughed aloud at the indignation on her face. “Protector of the Small.”

            “Oy!” She punched his arm, without force. “I hate that name.”

            “Get used to it, Kel. It’s going to stick.” She made a face and he laughed again, softly. “I promise I’ll make Wolset stick to ‘Mother’, though, so you can rest easy.” He dodged a fist with more power behind it. “Hey, it’s better than ‘Sir Meathead’, isn’t it?”

            “Not by much, Dom. And if you tell anyone you think I’m like a stormwing, Tortall will not be big enough to hide in. That’s a promise too.”

            He raised his hands in mock-surrender, pleased to have lightened her mood. “Of course. But in that case we’d best shut up before we attract Wolset’s attention any more. We should get our heads down anyway if we’re moving at dawn.”

 

* * * * *

 

With everyone eager to reach Tortall they were on the move before dawn. The high cloud cover of recent days had cleared overnight and the waning gibbous moon gave enough light to break camp. The children ate the remaining rations on the move, and false dawn found them all more than a mile on their way. Soon sunshine began slanting across trees and meadows soft with summer growth, lifting hearts and hopes; the sparrows flew off to scout, and Kel picked up the pace a little. Of the stormwings there was no sign.

            With the sun still rising the trail topped a hill and they came to the true valley of the Vassa, catching a first glimpse of its waters sparkling to the south. Stepping up for a moment on Peachblossom’s stirrup, Kel realised they were a lot closer to the crossing-point than she’d thought, then whipped her head round as she heard Dom’s voice and Jump’s bark raised in challenge up the trail. A man had stepped out of the trees a dozen yards in front of them, hands wide.

            Calling a command to halt Kel dropped back to the ground, told Peachblossom to stay with Neal, and forced herself into a jog. Coming closer she realised it was one of the smugglers they’d met on the far bank; his gaze raked her, then flicked to the children on Peachblossom’s and Magewhisper’s backs.

            “You got your younglings, then. All of them?” He spoke in Common.

            “Yes, we got them.”

            “And the Kinslayer?”

            “Dead, with his mage-master.”

            “Ah.” His fist clenched. “Whose hand?”

            Kel blinked. “Mine, if it matters. The castle’s burned, too. And the survivors of Rathhausak village are with us.”

            “Ah.” He spat aside and then to Kel’s complete astonishment bowed to her. “Old Gella was right, Lady. Fate walked with you. And if ever a man needed killing, it was the Kinslayer.”

            Kel shrugged, wincing as her wound pulsed. “No argument from me. And thank you.” She decided there was no point in fencing. “Have you seen the other knights and the adults?”

            “Ay, we took them across three nights back. All two hundred and more.” He shook his head as Kel felt a weight lift from her. “More like ferrymen than honest smugglers.”

            She grinned. “Come peacetime you could try it. Do you know if the flatboats are on this side of the water?”

            He grinned back. “They’re not. But there’s a bunch of maroon soldiers guarding them on the other, and a picket on this, with the ropes strung.” Kel and Dom both sighed relief and the smuggler grinned again. “You won’t need us today—and a good thing if you’ve as many horses as I reckon you must.” He glanced up at the clear sky. “Good weather, too. The Vassa’s running calm as she ever does and you needn’t worry about Maggur’s men. They crossed to the west ten days back, and lost a battle the day after full moon. No survivors made it back this far east and there’s none within ten miles now. I think luck walks with you as well as fate, Lady.”

            He turned back towards the trees.

            “Wait.” Kel closed the distance between them and stuck out her hand. “Thank you, for everything. We wouldn’t have made it in time without your help, and your news now is trebly welcome.”

            His eyebrows rose but he took her hand gingerly. “You made good use of our help, Lady, and many beside me will drink to the Kinslayer’s death this night.”

            She let him go and he vanished among the trees in less than a minute. Dom shook his head, and Nari peeped apologetically from his shoulder.

            “Like a ghost. Sorry, Lady Kel. We should have flushed him earlier. I’ll be having words. Still, trebly welcome is right—the others all safe and help waiting at the crossing.”

            Kel nodded, and gave a sharp whistle to summon Peachblossom and tell Wolset, with the rearguard, to get everyone else moving again. Dom looked at her thoughtfully.

            “You think he’s telling the truth there’s no-one to hear us, then?”

            “Yes.  Remember Owen’s tale of a major Scanran crossing at the full moon? It explains why we’ve seen no-one. Go find that picket and get the flatboats brought across?”

            “Will do, Kel.”

            It was three miles before a side-trail forked off through a wooded notch in the bluffs and snaked down to the Vassa. Dom and his squad were clustered round four men in army maroon, and behind them Kel could see three flatboats being hauled across by more soldiers on thick ropes spanning the river. As she and Peachblossom trudged up to the talking men a hard-faced sergeant she didn’t recognise stood forward and saluted her, eyes straying back along the column.

            “Lady Knight. Sergeant Domitan says you have the refugee children and about forty Scanrans wanting sanctuary?”

            “We do, yes. Two-hundred-and-forty-six people, all told, Sergeant, including one-hundred-and-eighty-three children. Plus eleven dogs, a cat, and about one-hundred-and-eighty horses and ponies.”

            He whistled, but army discipline and experience held. “Well, that’ll take some ferrying. We’ll get started as soon as the boats get across.” He glanced back at the men hauling on the river. “Five minutes, about. You’re to head straight to Mastiff, my Lady. The other refugees you sent back with Sir Merric are there. There’s not enough barrack-space inside, so some are in tents outside the walls, but we couldn’t feed ’em anywhere else.”

            “Very well. And speaking of food, do you have any spare, Sergeant? The children have gone short for days.”

            He looked at her steadily. “You too, my Lady, by your face. We weren’t issued much more than trail-rations but we’ve taken some small game. I’ll get it heating and send word to Mastiff you need a cook-wagon to meet you tomorrow. For tonight, there’s a way-point about twenty miles east with enough for a full company at least.”

            “Thank you, Sergeant. That all sounds good. Now, how is this going to work?”

            It took the rest of the morning and half the afternoon, as well as heroic efforts by Tobe and Zerhalm in coaxing the horses and ponies onto the rocking flatboats. Kel dreaded to think what it would have been like without fresh soldiers working in relay on the ropes. She also sent silent thanks to any gods who might be listening for the sunshine and relative benignity of the fierce river. By common consent the children went first, older mixed among younger to keep them together on the far side and help with feeding them. When all were across the long process of ferrying horses began, Scanran adults among them in fours and fives to keep them calm, until only Kel and the friends who had accompanied her north were left to clamber aboard with their warhorses and be drawn slowly back to the Tortallan bank.

            By the time they disembarked most children were already remounted and within a few minutes the motley column was again underway. Five soldiers from the picket reinforced Dom’s squad as point and rearguard, and in little more than an hour the trail spilled onto the main road between Northwatch and Frasrlund. The broader, well-kept pathway allowed the horses to spread out and their pace to quicken, and as the sun westered Kel realised with a tightening chest that the younger children had begun to talk and laugh as they rode. She met Neal’s eyes and knew he shared her emotion.

            “I hadn’t realised how unnatural their silence was. Or how good it would be hear them sound carefree again.”

            “Me either. I’ll sleep better tonight than I have for a while. They will, too, as the nightmares fade.”

            “Let’s hope so. Are there any you’re worried about?” Kel shook her head. “What a dumb question. What they lived through was giving me nightmares from five hundred miles away.”

            “I knew what you meant, and yes, there’s some who’ll need help. Maybe for a while.” Neal gave a crooked smile. “We never really talk about this sort of thing, except among healers, and there isn’t usually much we can do except listen to people. Just make sure their carers know, if a child starts to talk about it, don’t hush them, let it spill.” His face grew thoughtful. “It’s like infection, I think. Talking’s a way of draining the wound so it can heal.”

            Kel chewed on the idea, wondering what her Yamani and Tortallan selves thought. “That makes sense. I danced round this with Yuki and Cricket once, when they were having a heart-to-heart about something. But they tried to use my experience with my ma and the raiders as an example, and I loved that memory so I didn’t really understand what they were saying.”

            Neal looked at her sidelong. “You should have told them about your dear brother dangling you off a tower.”

            No longer batophobic, Kel still winced at the memory. “But it was real heights that scared me, not dream ones.” She frowned, searching her mind. “Come to think of it, I never really had nightmares before I met the Chamber.”

            “Those ‘Nothing Man’ visions Tobe mentioned?”

            “Yes. And before that one with Lalasa and Cricket and everyone being auctioned off to Joren, or killed when he rejected them.”

            “What?” Neal’s eye were wide. “When was this?”

            “After Joren’s trial. I tested myself against the Chamber door, and that was what it showed me. For months I saw it whenever I slept.”

            “Wait. You touched the Chamber door again?”

            “Of course I did. Doesn’t everyone?”

            His eyebrows almost reached the unkempt hair sticking out under his helmet. “No, Kel, they don’t. And I told you not to. Why did you? Because of what Joren said at the trial?”

            “No. not really. I was doing it anyway, and that’s what happened that time.”

            “That time? Kel, please don’t tell me you did this more than twice?”

            She stared at him with genuine puzzlement. “Of course I did, about every six months. I thought you all did, but no-one said anything because you don’t, about the Chamber, and because it’s all too personal and horrible anyway.” A thought clicked. “Are you telling me that when you entered the Chamber for your Ordeal you’d only approached it once before?”

            “Too right I am. Once is plenty.”

            Kel stared again. “Neal, that’s crazy. Don’t you believe in scouting?”

            “Oh, I like that. You put yourself through tortures no-one else even thinks of doing and I’m crazy?” He shook his head sorrowfully. “All I can say, Kel, is that if you were chatting on a regular basis with that, that, sessile psychopath, no wonder it picked you for a mission.”

            “Huh.” They walked on, each digesting surprise. “What’s a sessile psychopath?”

            “A criminal lunatic that stays in one place.”

            “Huh.” A long pause. “It’s not mad. Or criminal. It’s just not human, nor mortal. Master Numair said it was an elemental, but I never really understood what that is.” A shorter pause. “And you heard it talking through Irnai. That’s not staying in place.”

            “True.” He frowned. “You should tell someone about that, actually. Who knows what the mobile psychopath will do next?”

            “Oh hush.” They passed a berry bush and Kel grabbed a handful for the sparrows who flitted back to rest on Peachblossom’s mane between scouting patterns. “Dom said I should report it as well.”

            “For once he’s right. Joking aside, Kel, the King ought to know it happened. It might happen again. And Lord Padraig, I suppose, in case it happens to anyone else.”

            “I promised him I would.” A very long pause. “I’ve been regretting it ever since.”

            “Why?”

            “Why d’you think, Neal? The Girl claims a special relationship with the Chamber of the Ordeal. Right.” Her voice dropped to a mutter. “Perhaps I slept with it, somewhere between all of you and Third Company.”

            Despite himself Neal laughed, then sobered. “I see your point, Kel, but Dom is right. This truth matters more than those stupid conservative lies.”

            “Maybe.”

            They rode in companionable silence, listening to the children, as shadows lengthened and the long dusk began. It was almost over, the summer stars beginning to show, when they came to the way-point, a clearing on the far side of a little ford, to find Dom’s squad and the army men had already started fires and set cauldrons of soup and what smelled like boar stew heating. They’d also broken out bales of hay for the horses and ponies, who pushed forward impatiently as they were relieved of their burdens and unsaddled. Kel secured some for Peachblossom before turning back to the mob of waiting children.

            With extra hands available end-of-day chores seemed ridiculously easier, but the children’s relaxation was great enough that despite tiredness their play became more energetic, and for the first time Kel could remember minor squabbles broke out. Picking apart two entangled six-year-olds, orphans from Goatstrack, Kel found herself helped by a strange corporal, an older man who must have had children of his own and effortlessly held one crying youngster while Kel held the other. Mindful of Neal’s words she let the tears flow, rocking the boy gently, and saw the corporal doing likewise. As sobs subsided he gave a smile.

            “How far’ve you come wiv ’em, me Lady?” His voice had the unmistakeable accent of the Corus slums.

            Kel added it up. “They were taken twelve days ago, and this’ll be the sixth night since we rescued them. We’ve come a bit over a hundred miles.”

            He gave her a respectful look. “Fair speed wiv such a passel o’ kids. It must ’ave been ’ard for you.”

            “Actually, they’ve been as good as gold, corporal. This is the first fussing we’ve had, even from the littles. It’s just that they’re relaxing, I think.”

            “Ah.” He set his burden down, and Kel did likewise, crouching to hug both children and gently admonish them to wash their hands and faces before eating. As they ran off, tears forgotten, he looked at her again, his eyes sad. “It was that bad, then?”

            She nodded. “It was, corporal. Not our journey, so much, but their capture and what came after. They’ve all seen things no-one should ever have to see.”

            “Ah. Well, they’re rescued now. I should get some wood.” He half-turned away, then swung back. “Beggin’ your pardon, me Lady, but what did the Scanrans want ’em for? From what the other lot said it weren’t just for slaves.”

            Kel hesitated but decided the soldier as much as the children deserved the truth, which was no secret anyway. “They were going to make more killing devices, corporal. One from each child murdered. And from what we saw and heard at Rathhausak, probably raped first by the mage doing the death-magic.”

            “No!” Eyes wide he spat, making the gods’-circle on his chest. “Black God take that mage.”

            “He already has.”

            “Ah, gods all bless you, me Lady.”

             “It was my pleasure, corporal.” She hesitated again, but hope and curiosity won. “Tell me, do you know if anything happened to the killing devices already in the field, about six days ago?”

            He nodded vigorously, eyes widening again. “They all stopped, me Lady, or so I ’eard back at Mastiff before I left. I ain’t seen them meself, but command was all runnin’ round squawkin’ on—let me see, now—the mornin’ o’ the eleventh, it bein’ the sixteenth today. An’ what the clerks said was, it was coz the killin’ devices ’ad stopped ’ere an’ at Frasrlund an’ the City o’ the Gods.” He stopped to let Kel complete her muttered prayer of thanks to Mithros, his eyes sharp with calculation. “It was you what stopped ’em, then, me Lady?”

            “That’s when we killed the mage, yes. I hoped it’d mean all the devices stopped, but who knows what’ll happen when mages are involved.”

            “You got that right, me Lady.” He made the sign against evil again. “Should I tell others, then? About the devices stoppin’, I mean. It’s no secret they did.”

            “Please do.”

            Kel went to tell Neal herself, who gave his own thanks as a healer, and hugged her quickly, as did Fanche and Saefas. Dom and his men, she discovered, had already learned the news and were elated, remembering the first device they’d fought together at Forgotten Well and feeling that Lofren’s and Fulcher’s deaths had helped achieve even more than the rescue of the children. Their joviality drew in Uinse and the convicts, who also cheered, having themselves faced the devices both victoriously and in the horror of Haven’s fall.

            With all in good heart as well as better rations and bigger portions than any of them had seen in days there was real warmth in the evening conversation, though to Kel’s mild irritation Wolset coaxed Irnai into repeating for the army men her prophecy of Kel’s arrival. There was  murmuring about the litany of names and unsubtle questions about Tobe as the ‘horse boy’ and Fanche as the ‘bitter mother’, as well as some very sidelong looks at the Protector of the Small. Neal, she thought glumly, was probably right that the Chamber’s ridiculous tag would stick, and her only comfort was that fuller bellies made for sooner and sounder sleep.

            They were later starting off the next morning, but not much, and the good trail with continuing fine weather allowed them to keep a faster pace. During the morning they crossed the Greenwoods River, passing the trail to Haven, and Kel found herself wondering with more urgency how Lord Wyldon would house the refugees. Haven itself was ruined beyond easy repair, and she thought the refugees would be as superstitious about rebuilding it as the soldiers were about rebuilding Giantkiller.

            By the time dusk drew down Kel reckoned they’d managed more than forty miles in the day, double their average in Scanra, but it was eighty from the Vassa crossing to Mastiff. Their last night on the road was made easier still when they were met by the promised cook-wagon and a squad of soldiers escorting three healers, to offer Neal relief with the children. The faster passage had made for uglier saddle-sores and she gave thanks for someone’s foresight—Lord Raoul’s, she’d bet, though to be fair she knew that despite Lord Wyldon’s manner as training-master he had his own soft spot for little ones.

            With a proper breakfast and wonderfully fresh bread available they started later still, and at the healers’ collective insistence kept the pace down, stopping frequently to allow children to switch places and animals. A further cook-wagon with a squad to guard it provided lunch and a longer break than usual, so it was early evening before Kel and Peachblossom led the long procession up the hillside into the great clearing that housed Mastiff. Coming from Haven she’d always ridden the courier-route over the hills, entering the open land from the north, and this western approach was unfamiliar—as were the scores of tents clustered around the fort, and the guards patrolling the treeline.

            The sergeant who saluted them where the trail entered the clearing gave a hand-signal, and Kel was barely past him when she heard the horn-call rising behind her into the dusk. The answer was prompt, and before its echoes died she could see people running towards them from the tents, and more emerging from the fort. By the time the whole column had entered the meadow they were surrounded by the rescued adults from Haven, full of tears and joy as they welcomed children who scrambled down from patient horses and ponies to hug and be hugged. Mindful of how many were orphans Kel dismounted herself, seeing Neal, Owen, and Dom do the same, and began lifting more children down from the bigger horses, hugging each hard before letting them run or stand blinking, and turning for the next. Tobe, summoning abandoned horses for corralling and fodder, had a broad smile on his face, and the expressions of parents and carers reunited with children they’d seen carried off by Stenmun and his men brought a lump to her throat. When groups began clustering round her, muttering gruff thanks and praises, she didn’t try to stop her tears. It wasn’t sobs that would have called out her Yamani mask, even now, just a silent overflow of relief and simple happiness at duty done.

            As the press eased she dried her face and led Peachblossom slowly towards the fort, Jump at her heels. Irnai skipped from among the Scanran refugees to grasp her hand, smiling. Kel smiled back, but her stomach hollowed as she realised why Irnai had sought her out, and her heart began to hammer as she caught sight of the three men standing outside the open gates of the fort, watching as the first children ran or were carried past them. Dom, carrying Meech and holding Gydo’s hand, was well ahead of her, and she saw Lord Raoul clap him on his free shoulder, asking something that drew a laugh and a bantering reply she couldn’t hear. Beside Raoul, the faces of Duke Baird and Lord Wyldon seemed blanker, though after a moment she saw Baird spot Neal in the group behind her and abruptly start towards him. Courteous as always he detoured to pass her and paused a moment, glancing curiously at Irnai.

            “Congratulations, Keladry. I didn’t think I’d ever see these children again.”

            His voice was warm but his attention was on Neal and she waved him on, heartened by his praise but steeling herself for what she knew must follow. The last yards before she reached her trainers and commanders seemed the longest of the whole journey. Finally she trudged to a halt before them both, let go of Irnai’s hand, and was trying to bend her aching legs to go to one knee when Raoul stepped forward and swept her into a crushing hug that bought a bolt of pain to her wounded shoulder.

            “Gods, Kel, don’t ever scare me like that again.” Easing back as he heard her grunt of pain his eyes searched hers. “You’re hurt?”

            “Just my shoulder, my Lord. It’s still tender.”

            “Mmh. You’ve lost weight, too. Do you need a healer?”

            “Not immediately, my Lord.” Gently she disengaged from him, and turned to Lord Wyldon. His face was as emotionless as ever but his dark eyes were intent.

            “Well, Mindelan? Report.”

            She drew a deep breath. “I’m very sorry for my disobedience, my Lord. But before what must happen, I do need to report, not only to you, but to my Lord of Goldenlake, General Vanget, and probably the King.”

            His eyes went cool. “Concerning?”

            “Blayce Younger the Gallan, my Lord, and how he was doing what he was at Castle Rathhausak.”

            He exchanged a surprised look with Lord Raoul.

            “Rathhausak? King Maggur’s clan-fief?”

            “Yes, sir.” She rested a hand lightly on Irnai’s shoulder, seeing the moment when both men caught sight of the seer’s intense green eyes. “This is Irnai, lately of Rathhausak, who can witness certain things and has a story of her own. She’s chosen of Shakith, I believe. And my Lord, the Scanran refugees with us are all that remains of Maggur’s own liegemen. Will you ensure they’re kept together, and safe? It worries me they might be targets, when he hears they’ve fled.”

            The look in Lord Wyldon’s eyes was unreadable, but after a moment and another glance at Raoul he nodded, and gave orders to a waiting sergeant to make arrangements. The man loped off and his gaze came back to her.

            “This report is urgent?”

            Kel nodded. “Yes, my Lord. Not in the sense that lives depend on it, but … well, politically. There are things you should all know before you decide what to say about the killing devices.”

            Both men frowned, before Lord Raoul replied.

            “You know they all collapsed? We assumed … yes, well, we had to say something, so we’ve put it about that a new mage has entered the war and disabled them. Should we not?”

            Kel gave her limited shrug. “I’m not sure, my Lord, but there’s a better story than that if you want it.”

            “Very well.” Lord Wyldon’s voice was brisk. “But in that case we should do it now, if you’re up to it, Lady Knight.” Turning, he sent a man to fetch Duke Baird and another to find someone whose name Kel didn’t catch. “Vanget retires early when he can. Come. Let one of the men take your horse.” He looked at Peachblossom. “And no nonsense out of you.”

            Peachblossom snorted, but let Kel reluctantly give his reins to a waiting soldier, patting his neck and wondering when—if—she’d see him again, or the sparrows perched on his mane and Jump trotting behind. Lord Wyldon had already turned and gone, and Lord Raoul had taken Irnai’s hand and followed, bending absurdly to speak to the girl. With a juddering breath and a last glance after Peachblossom, Kel forced herself to follow them through the great gates of the fort.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two — Reporting

18–19 June

 

To Kel’s surprise Lord Wyldon didn’t lead them to his office but up narrow stairs to a meeting-room she’d never seen. Despite summer warmth a small, well-tended fire crackled in an oddly placed hearth with flanking baskets of kindling and trimmed logs; a polished sheet of metal hung on a nearby wall. There were also a table, pushed aside, a large-scale map of the district, studded with pins, and a semi-circle of chairs with cushions facing both hearth and metal sheet. Kel realised the King would be contacted through the fire; how the sheet of metal worked she had no idea, but presumed it must be a mage-link to General Vanget at Northwatch.

            Ahead of her Raoul gestured Irnai to a chair, and turned. “Hot juice, Kel? You look done in.”

            She nodded her thanks. “That sounds good, my Lord.”

            “I’ll get some. Sit, sit.”

            He swung back out, calling for someone, and Kel looked wearily round. A chair was tempting but besides being in armour and unlikely to do any furniture much good, she knew that once she surrendered to exhaustion she’d go out like a light. Instead she fell into the ‘at ease’ stance she’d learned with the Own. Lord Wyldon, seating himself, looked at her curiously.

            “You prefer to stand, Mindelan?”

            “Once I’m down I’ll be out, my Lord. Standing’s safer.”

            “As you will.” He peered. “Are you sure you don’t need a healer?”

            “It’s not necessary, my Lord. And would certainly send me to sleep. Healing always does.”

            He grunted acknowledgement, fingers drumming on his thigh, and seemed about to speak when Raoul returned carrying a tray with a steaming pitcher and sturdy clay mugs. Behind him came Duke Baird and Harailt of Aili; Kel had always liked the powerful university mage, and nodded gratefully at his congratulations on recovering the refugees.

            Raoul poured juice, introducing Irnai to Duke Baird and Harailt as he gave her a cup and passed one to Kel. She cupped her hands around the warmth and sipped, savouring the tartness and spice-flavours.

            “Will you not sit, Kel?”

            “I’d rather stand, my Lord.”

            “I did ask her, Goldenlake. Now, Harailt, Baird?”

            Both nodded. Baird went to the metal sheet, summoning a handful of green magic to send flowing across the surface. Beside him Harailt knelt before the fire, murmuring words that made it blaze up with flames the deep red of his Gift.

            Vanget responded first, Baird’s magic clearing with a soft chime to reveal the haMinchi army commander leaning back with a frown against an enormous desk heaped with papers.

            “What’s up, Wyldon?” Kel had only once heard him speak before, though she’d seen him several times at a distance. His voice was deep but crisp, with a northern burr, fitting his weathered face and close-cropped hair. “Oh, she’s back, I see.” Kel met shrewd brown eyes. “I’ve been hearing remarkable things about you, Lady Knight.” His gaze went back to Wyldon. “This is her report?”

            “It is, Vanget. You’re here at her request and we’re waiting on His Majesty. Oh, and this is Irnai of Rathhausak, here with Mindelan.”

            Vanget frowned. “Rathhausak? Maggur’s clanseat on the Pakkai? Is that—”

            He was interrupted by Harailt’s deliberately loud “Your Majesty”, and Kel hastily gulped juice and set her mug on the table. As the mage rose from the fire and sat, a line of his Gift still connected to the flames, she could see that within them a window had opened to show King Jonathan of Conté. This manner of mage-talking had always unnerved Kel, though its usefulness was undeniable, but she braced herself with her familiar indifference to the King’s striking good looks. Beneath handsome features his face was drawn, and he seemed far more tired than when she’d last seen him, six months before at the Palace. He was looking at Harailt, but as the fire bloomed with the deep blue of his Gift, mixing with Harailt’s red, the window enlarged and his eyes swiftly scanned the room before resting on Kel.

            “Ah. General Vanget, my Lords. You’re back then, Lady Knight. With the kidnapped children?”

            “Yes, your Majesty.”

            He smiled satisfaction. “Good, very good. You have my thanks, and Thayet’s.” Kel flushed and those piercing blue eyes studied her for a moment, before flicking to Irnai. “This girl is with you?”

            “Yes, sire. May I present Irnai of Rathhausak.” As General Vanget had, King Jonathan frowned. “She is witness to a thing I must report that you … well, you won’t want to believe it, sire.

            His face hardened. “That doesn’t sound good, Lady Knight. But we’d best get to it. What have you to say?”

            Kel swallowed and began the pitch she’d been rehearsing in her mind for days. “Sire, my Lords, I have a full written report of my actions, and the casualty roll.” She took battered scrolls from her left vambrace and gave them to Wyldon, whose eyebrows rose. “But what matters is, first and most, that Blayce Younger the Gallan is dead and his papers and workshop put to the torch.”

            Vanget interrupted, meaty hands smacking together. “Thank Mithros for that. Numair said he must be dead when the killing devices collapsed, but I’m delighted to have confirmation. And his workshop destroyed! Good work. What of the man Stenmun working with him, that Scanrans call the Kinslayer?”

            “Dead also, my Lord.”

            “Better and better. He’s been a nasty name on this border for twenty years and more. Who killed him?”

            Kel blinked. She didn’t know any more quite what she’d envisioned but it hadn’t been this affably blunt warrior curiosity. “I did, sir. I had to go through him to get to Blayce.”

            “Good for you. On both counts.”

            “Thank you, sir.” She forced herself back on track, trying not to let too much hope rise at his cheerful demeanour, and shifted her gaze back to the King. “The second thing, sire, is how Blayce was doing what he did.” She hesitated. “I think you know that when the devices were killed by cracking their head domes, the voices were those of children?” Jonathan grimaced, nodding. “Well, I can confirm he murdered a child to make each one.”

            Kel saw both mages make the sign against evil and Raoul’s fists clench.

            “Haven’s children were the real target of Stenmun’s raid. The adults who resisted were hanged, and the rest sold to slavers on the Smiskir road. But the children were kept alive, no matter what they did, and taken on to Castle Rathhausak, where Blayce waited for them.” She allowed herself a moment’s pause. “Sire, no language I know has words for what he did. The villagers of Rathhausak speak of him as a nicor, a child-eating monster.” To Kel, Blayce would always be the Nothing Man, a mousy, pimpled contradiction to the hideous scale of his magical crimes, but the old Scanran legend fitted her need. “Though I’ve never heard of a child-eater that played dressing-up games with its victims or raped them before it ate.” She saw the King blanch. “And the reason Stenmun needed our children, sire, is that he’d already taken all of their own. Irnai here was the only Scanran child alive in Rathhausak.”

            In the horrified silence Irnai slipped from her chair to stand calmly beside Kel looking at the semicircle of men. Neither flame nor mirror seemed to interest her and her voice had no tremor.

            “And for two score miles around. Stenmun took them all. First the pretty boys and girls, that the Gallan wanted most, then more and more, until few of any age were left. This spring he took even the slow ones, and the lame. Then there was only me.”

            The King spoke first. “Forgive me, Irnai, but how did you escape him, then?”

            “The god warned me, and when they came I hid where they would not be.”

            Master Harailt’s voice was gentle. “Do you know which god?”

            “The blind one who sees the future. She shows it to me sometimes.”

            “You mean Shakith?”

            Irnai shrugged. “She has many names and many forms. She showed me where I should hide and where I should go, and she told me that when the Protector of the Small came, with her knowing animals, and the healer and the horse boy, the armed men and the marked men, the trapper and the bitter mother, then the Gallan would fall.” From the looks on the men’s faces Kel knew Irnai had given that smile that was far too old for any child. “She was right.”

            The King’s eyes found Kel. “Can you explain, Lady Knight?”

            “The names fit the people who were with me, sire.”

            His eyebrows rose. “They do?”

            “The healer would be Sir Neal, sire, and I have a boy with horse magic. The marked men are the convict soldiers, and the others are two leaders among the Haven refugees, Fanche Miller and Saefas Ploughman.  Both refused to return with the adults and came on to Rathhausak.”

            “So the ‘knowing animals’ were that dog of yours and the sparrows? And you are the Protector of the Small, eh?” He gave a slight smile, at the name or her omission of it from her explanation. “It suits you.”

            Kel felt herself flush. ‘It’s just a silly name, sire. What matters is that King Maggur gave his own liege-children over to be killed.” She couldn’t stop contempt lacing her voice. “And his neighbouring clans’ children. And I don’t believe most of his soldiers know that.”

            Irnai’s voice was emotionless. “News passes slowly in Scanra even in peace. And Rathhausak was shut up for years. Before the Kinslayer came for us we heard nothing but rumours of slaving.”

            Jonathan’s eyes came back to Kel, widening. “You are suggesting we let them know?”

            “I am, sire. It can only cause King Maggur trouble. And in the tents here there are now all forty-three adult survivors of Rathhausak, as well as Irnai, to bear witness to his slaughters.” Kel hesitated and swallowed, knowing what she was about to say could be taken in many ways. “Your enemy’s betrayed liege-families, sire, whom you delivered from his doom, and now ask for your shelter.” She swallowed again. “You also burned down his castle, cleansing an evil even the gods abominate. I believe Sir Myles might do something with such a truth to save Tortallan lives. It also represents a blódbeallár challenge in Scanran bloodlaw.”

            Not wanting to stare at Jonathan she looked aside and saw Raoul’s face waver into a grin. “You said you had a better story than the one we’d made up, Kel, and you don’t disappoint.”

            For the first time Lord Wyldon sat forward. “How much did you burn at Rathhausak?”

            “Keep, hall, and stables, my Lord. Blayce’s workroom was in the keep. Sparks lit the hall roof, and we fired the stables for good measure after we’d emptied them. We had nothing to blast with, so the walls and gatehouse stand, but it’ll take some fixing.”

            “And the dead?”

            “We burned our own in the courtyard. For the rest, well, we left the stormwings beginning their feast.”

            “Mmmh.” He sat back, eyes hooded. “Very well. Is there anything else, Lady Knight.”

            Kel counted in her mind, tiredness pulling at her concentration more and more heavily. “Not really, my Lord. Blayce, his methods, and the chance to hurt Maggur with the truth. The safety of the villagers, after surviving so much. Oh, and coming back we didn’t meet a single Scanran soldier between Rathhausak and the Vassa, but I don’t suppose that matters now.”

            Irnai tugged at her sleeve and she looked down at the girl. Green eyes glowed back at her, something swirling behind them.

            “You promised the sergeant you’d tell.”

            Kel cursed silently, glowering, but it was foolish to wonder how Irnai knew things, and whether it had been Dom or some quite other being who told her made no difference now. She rested her hand on Irnai’s shoulder. “I know I did.”

            “Tell us what, Kel?” Raoul’s look was concerned.

            Defeated, Kel looked back at him, then at the curious mages, an intent General Vanget, and finally the King. She didn’t dare meet Lord Wyldon’s eyes. “Another thing I don’t think you’ll want to believe, sire, and that I do not willingly speak of.” She stopped to draw a deep breath and heard Irnai sigh, then speak herself.

            “Your Chamber chose her and spoke through me. The god was its path.”

            “My Chamber?” King Jonathan’s brows drew down as he looked at Irnai and then Kel. “The Chamber of the Ordeal?”

            Kel nodded reluctantly. “Yes, sire. So I believe. After my ordeal, at Midwinter, while I was still inside, it showed me a vision of Blayce. Later I spoke to it again, and it showed me the same thing.”

            “Wait.” His voice was incredulous. “You entered the Chamber a second time?”

            “Yes, sire.” She turned to Lord Raoul. “Do you remember, my Lord, I tried to ask your advice, but I didn’t know then I was allowed to speak of the vision.”

            He nodded slowly. “Yes, I do remember. I told you no-one ever went in a second time.” He glanced at Lord Wyldon, whose face was stone. “So you went straight there, I suppose.”

            “No, my Lord, but I had to, in the end. It showed me the vision of Blayce again and told me I could speak of it if I thought anyone would believe me.” She shrugged faintly. “I didn’t. And afterwards, it sent the vision again and again, in dreams.” Her voice dropped. “So many times, always the same.” Forcing herself away from the jagged emotions the memories still raised, even knowing Blayce was dead, she met the King’s stare. “Then in Rathhausak I heard its voice from Irnai’s lips. And in the castle, after I’d killed Blayce, its face appeared in the wall.” She saw raw disbelief in his blue eyes. “I’m sorry, sire. I would never claim this in public. And I know how it must seem. But Sergeant Domitan heard Irnai too and he thought you ought to know. So did Sir Neal, who also believed you should inform Lord Padraig as training master.”

            The King’s frown deepened into a scowl and his gaze swung around the room, gauging reactions before returning to her.

            “It is not easy to believe, Lady Knight.” His voice was hard. “I have never heard of the Chamber operating at a distance.”

            “There was never a need before, Jonathan of Conté.”

            Kel started at the familiar thin, whispering voice that came from Irnai’s mouth but her reaction was nothing to that of the men, who uniformly went white. Even Lord Wyldon paled; every man there except Master Harailt was a knight by ordeal, whatever their inherited titles, and the Chamber’s was not a voice anyone ever forgot.

            “This time there was. The Protector of the Small spoke true. The gods hate death magic. I acted with Shakith and Gainel to end it, and I speak here with their aid.”

            Kel could feel her cheeks burning and hear the breaths drawn by all. General Vanget was no longer leaning against his desk but bolt upright, and tension sang in every face.

            “I showed her this.”

            Eyes closed, Irnai raised her hands and light flowed from them, building another window that from their intent stares everyone could see. In it Kel’s nightmare appeared yet again, workshop, devices and all, and she looked at the floor, willing herself to Yamani blankness as the Nothing Man once more added another small, broken body to the pile already there. Risking a glance around she saw every face now flushed and openly shocked, mouths twisting in horror.

            “And she did this.”

            The thin whisper sounded satisfied, as it had at Rathhausak, and this time Kel did watch in horrified fascination as the scene changed to the keep at Rathhausak and she once more tripped Stenmun and smashed the butt of her glaive between his eyes before cutting his throat. She found she was willing herself to find the severed griffin-feather headband sooner, to take Blayce as soon as she saw him in his workroom, not to be fooled by his hypnotising magic—but everything played out just as she remembered, save that she didn’t recognise her own voice and Blayce remained visible to all but her image-self as he scrambled away from her and up onto a table. She had forgotten the necromancer’s sneering arguments as he tried to save himself, boasting of his power and offering to make killing devices for Jonathan instead of Maggur, and she felt fierce satisfaction as her glaive at last caught him behind the knees to bring him down, then neatly beheaded him. But watching herself sway with effort she remembered with complete clarity what she’d said to his corpse and watched her mouth begin to open with an appalled sense of the floor again moving beneath her feet.

            “You’re wrong about my king, I think, but better that he not have the chance to be tempted by the likes of you. And frankly? What you just got was far more merciful than you deserved.

            As her image-self turned away, leaning on her glaive, the doors of the Chamber appeared as they had then, from the inside, its yellow-eyed face sculpted into the keystone. Then the picture froze, and after a second the light disappeared as Irnai’s hands fell to her sides. But the Chamber still possessed the girl, and Kel knew in her fear and mortification it was again amused at her expense.

            “Remember it, Jonathan of Conté. I do not judge or choose amiss. Nor do the gods.” Abruptly the Chamber’s tone modulated into what Kel thought of as its grumpy voice. “Shakith wants her chosen back.”

            Even as it spoke Irnai’s body went rigid, eyes opening wide and white, her hair crackling and standing away from her head. The voice that broke from her was high and shrill, a hawk’s call in the distance.

            “When the stormwings play again above the Greenwoods, the war will end.

            Irnai sagged as her knees buckled and would have fallen if Kel hadn’t stretched to catch her, clamping her mouth against sharp pain as the sudden movement tore at her wounded shoulder. Holding Irnai she felt blood trickling onto her breast but Duke Baird was with her, easing the small body to the floor and letting his magic play over Irnai’s face and torso for a long minute.

            “She’s alright, I think.” His voice was rougher than usual, edged with unease. “Knocked out by the divine passing through her, I suppose. Numair has more experience of this sort of thing.” He snagged a cushion to slip under Irnai’s head, stroking her wild hair a little flatter. “Her fugue will pass into true sleep, I expect, but I’ve no idea when.” He reached for her wrist, then laid a hand on her arm. “She’s freezing. Wyldon, is there—”

            “I’ll get a blanket.”

            He rose and left swiftly, and Kel heard breaths let raggedly out around the room before the King spoke.

            “Gods! Literally.” His expression was unfathomably complex and his voice very flat. “I loathe prophecies. Any guesses as to what exactly that one meant?”

            Kel’s eyes met General Vanget’s, dark in his pale and sweating face, and he nodded her to speak. Her voice sounded harsh but at least it seemed her own, unlike the voice she’d heard from her image-self. “Haven is in the Greenwoods valley, sire. And after Stenmun’s raid its dead were defiled by stormwings.” She had to swallow her rage. “One of them apologised to me for it, afterwards, in a stormwing way.” She ignored the startled looks and Lord Wyldon’s return with a blanket that he knelt to tuck gently around Irnai, though she felt an urge to thank him. “So what it meant, sire, is that whoever next commands in that valley should expect the war’s last battle to be fought there.”

            Seating himself again, Lord Wyldon nodded sharply. “I would agree, sire, though I note that the girl—or the god—did not say with whom or what the stormwings might play. Will you ask Master Numair?”

            “I will. Not that I’ll get sensible answers. Which I now require.” The King’s gaze pinned Kel. “Lady Knight, I do not believe I have been so astonished by anyone since I first met Daine. And she proved Godborn. Plainly, please, when you went after Blayce, were you compelled?”

            Kel shook her head, feeling tiredness seep back into her limbs as the shock of hearing the prophecy wore off. “No. sire, not magically. My actions were my own to choose and I went after my people, not after Blayce. But I knew in my heart he would be waiting for them, and the children were foremost in my mind.” She hesitated, trying to search her conscience. “I think knowing I obeyed the Chamber helped me ignore my doubts and fears.” She swallowed, hard. “And my regrets.”

            “I imagine it might.” His voice was very dry. “So, Lady Knight. The gods gave you no Gift but watch you as they watch their chosen. And I find myself deeply in your debt.”

            Kel stared, confusion crowding her mind. Her shoulder hurt horribly. “I don’t understand, sire.”

            “Do you not, Lady Knight? Is there nothing you would ask of me?”

            He must mean her treason, and some part of her mind tried to sharpen. “Oh. That.” The King frowned and she made a huge effort to marshal her thoughts. “I would ask your pardon for those who followed me, sire. Especially Owen.” His frown dissolved into puzzlement and Kel hurried on. “Jesslaw, sire. And I would beg your care of the villagers from Rathhausak, and your defence of Mindelan if King Maggur learns of my part in what happened.” Was there anything else? Should she ask about the convicts who had borne so much, so valiantly?

            The King’s voice was still bone dry. “All this for others, Lady Knight? And nothing for yourself?”

            Gathering her last strength Kel straightened, ignoring her shoulder. “I cannot honourably ask pardon for myself, sire, for were my choice to make over I would do the same thing again.” She felt herself sway and forced more effort into her legs.

            “Wait. What has pardon …” His face became incredulous as he worked it out. “You give this report and stand there believing I would have you charged with treason? Are you mad?”

            Kel felt indignation blossom. “Not in the least, Your Majesty. But after nine years of it, I know full well what the political consequences of my disobedience must be.”

            King Jonathan’s face froze. “The political … You think I’d throw you to Stone Mountain for this? That”—his voice again took on that controlled flatness—“that I’d have you executed to shut him up? You cannot …” His voice trailed off and Kel heard herself speak.

            “I know what reality has taught me, sire.” She felt herself sway again. “But I thought you’d leave it as an army matter.”

            “You think I want you dead?” Lord Wyldon’s voice held a note she’d never heard and her head snapped round to face his pain.

            “What does want have to do with anything, my Lord? It’s your duty to maintain discipline, as it proved mine to break it. I regret nothing but my dead.”

            “Gods. Mindelan.”

            Kel didn’t know how long the silence lasted until she heard Duke Baird’s voice in the distance.

            “Keladry, you’re bleeding! Wyldon, can you get her—“

            She felt hands unbuckling her armour, the halves of her cuirass lifted away, and her filthy gambeson unbuttoned and slipped down her arms as she was pushed into a chair. Someone hissed, and she heard Baird’s voice again, coolly professional.

            “I’ll have to cut off the shirt. It’s beyond saving anyway.”

            Cool metal slid against her skin, air brushed against her, and the wound above her breast shrieked as  more scabs were lifted away with her shirt. Then a blessed coolth and ease surged into her, her blurred vision sparkling with green before clearing to show her a strip of floor with a blood-soaked swatch of material. Faintly she heard a voice she thought was the King’s, awake? … things … saying, before she felt her hands grasped and another voice drove into her fogged mind, as once through sheer terror.

            “Mindelan! Listen to me. Listen. You’ve lost a lot of blood. What gave this wound?”

            “Axe-head,” she heard herself mutter in compelled response. “Stenmun.”

            Duke Baird’s voice sounded cross and her indignation flared again. “Nealan should have done better.”

            She spoke as loudly as she could. “He was exhausted, your Grace.”

            “He should know how to triage by now.”

            With a huge effort she pulled her good hand free and reached up to grasp Baird’s wrist. “He does. He did. Three at least live who wouldn’t otherwise. Including me.” Her hand dropped back into her lap, where it was again held.

            Baird’s voice was gentler. “I understand, Keladry. Yet much was left undone, and for long.” A hand cupped her neck and green fire cleared her head. “Say what you must with all speed, Wyldon.”

            The driving voice came again, Mindelan!, and she blinked mute protest. “I hear you, my Lord.”

            “Good.” His voice became as dry as the King’s had been, and he sat back slightly on his heels though keeping his grip on her hands. “Your military analysis was flawed, Mindelan. My duty to discipline must be balanced with my duties to those I command, to the future of the realm, and to morale. You will face no charge, nor any who accompanied you. Now heed the King.”

            Obediently her gaze tracked across to the face leaning forward from the fire.

            “Your political analysis was flawed for the same reason, Lady Knight. You must learn to value yourself as we have learned, not least tonight.” Blue eyes seemed to grow even bluer. “Once you are healed, we must talk again. But now I will make you a political deal I believe you will accept.”

            Kel watched with a sense of faint puzzlement as he drew a deep breath and seemed to brace himself.

            “Keladry of Mindelan, nine years ago Lord Wyldon and I did you a grave disservice. You know it, he knows it, and I know it. When we imposed that probationary year, we bent justice against you. So now we bend it in your favour and judge the great services you—and all who helped you—have done us, and the realm, without noticing the disobedience from which they grew. Are we agreed?”

            Kel thought about it. Somewhere in her mind a sardonic voice she didn’t like was saying that Jonathan of Conté, as usual, had got himself a good deal, paying down his own expediency with someone else’s sacrifice, but the louder voice sang pure relief, for Owen and her family, Yuki and Shinko who might have been tainted by her treason, and underneath it all for herself. The girl who could, and did, and had. She would see Peachblossom again, and Jump and Nari. Head slightly wobbly, she nodded.

            “I can live with that, sire.”

            She tried to smile at him, to convey her happiness and relief, and blackness tinged with green swirled up to claim her.

 

* * * * *

 

As Kel was carried out, shoulder tightly bandaged with Baird hovering beside her and a blanket-wrapped Irnai, Raoul dropped onto a chair and let out a long breath.

            “Gods! I know how to pick ’em, don’t I?” His eyes met Jonathan’s and he shook his head ruefully. “I’m sorry I didn’t realise she was talking to the Chamber, Jon. She did ask about it, but, well, who’d have thought—”

            “No blame to you, Raoul. Wild horses wouldn’t get me inside it again.”

            “Nor me.” Vanget’s expression mixed admiration and incredulity. “Two ordeals? What’s she made of? Yamani steel?” He barked a laugh. “You must admit, Wyldon, the joke’s on us this time.”

            Wyldon’s face was drawn but his eyes sparked as he nodded. “Yes. I’ve never known a finer knight, nor one so blind to her own worth. And that is the mark of my failing.”

            “And of mine.” Jonathan’s voice was clear and hard. “Nor are we alone. A lot of people are going to look rather silly when this news breaks. And Mithros knows Alanna will be impossible. But our consciences must wait. General Vanget, do you agree we should use this tale? And get Sir Myles to spread it inside Scanra?”

            “Yes, sire, I do. With the devices dead Maggur must be having problems already, and the horror of this will hit his men and his authority hard. As it should.”

            “Mmmm. Then I think we must have our Lady Knight leading.” He sighed. “It couldn’t well be concealed anyway, and truth is usually best. But with apologies, Lord Wyldon, I think we have to say she went at your and my command.”

            Wyldon nodded. “Agreed, sire.” He gave a faint shrug. “It cuts through the muddle.”

            “And will head off Stone Mountain or anyone else who hears some rumour and wants to make trouble for her.” Jonathan’s voice was shrewd. “To be fair to her fears, he probably would try it if he thought of it. He’s still half-deranged by his son’s death. Which brings us to the Chamber. What should we do about that, my Lords?”

            “There’s nothing we can do, sire, or that we should.” Wyldon’s voice was unyielding and there were sharp nods all round. “It does as it will, always. As do the gods. It was I who misjudged Joren and Keladry as pages, not the Chamber.” He frowned. “Much as I hate to agree with him, Sir Nealan’s right you should tell Lord Padraig about all this, not that there’s much he can do. Though I suppose knight masters could ask those emerging from their Ordeals if they have been given any … quest is the word, I think. But Mindelan’s right that this part of events should not be publicised.” He glanced at Vanget and Harailt, then looked at Raoul. “I’m not endorsing them, Goldenlake, but conservatives would find it hard to swallow the Lady Knight as the Chamber’s chosen.”

            Raoul’s smile was mirthless. “So would progressives, Cavall. So do I, come to that. And Kel would hate it—you heard her.” His face tightened. “But while Mithros knows I’ll be delighted to see her given her due otherwise, I think she’s right about the risk of Maggur’s revenge. If his control is slipping he’ll be desperate to regain it, and if we put the story about he’ll know exactly who to blame for killing his pet mage and burning his castle.” His fist banged softly on the chair leg. “We know he’ll hurt whoever’s in his reach, and then there’s the blódbeallár thing—home fief for home fief. Pull two navy ships off piracy patrol and get them to Mindelan, Jon? If half-a-dozen wolf-ships came in there out of an autumn fog …” The King winced, nodding, and Raoul’s gaze went back to Wyldon. “What are you going to do with Kel, Cavall?”

            “Give her back to her refugees, I should think. There’d probably be a riot otherwise. You saw how they greeted her.” Wyldon rubbed his forehead. “They’ll have to go back to the Greenwoods valley, prophecy or no. With the south closed there’s nowhere else to put them. So someone has to be in charge there, and she’s still by far the best option I have.”

            “Fair enough. But that prophecy needs thinking on. If we know there’s to be another battle there …”

            “And where do we get the men, Goldenlake? I can find a few extra squads, but more would leave Mastiff vulnerable, and you know it.”

            “We can build properly, though.” Vanget’s voice was crisp. “I’ve not seen that valley for years, but if Harailt and Numair can lift enough ground we ought to be able to give the camp a proper wall and gates. Extra men won’t mean much if they end up facing an attack in force with a single half-height palisade and no earthworks or abatis. When you’ve a site sorted I can send the eastern building team along as well. They can help out at Giantkiller too, once they’re done.”

            Harailt, Raoul, and Wyldon were nodding and Jonathan gave a crooked grin. “Good. Something else settled. I’ll let Numair know he’ll be needed.”

            “Daine too, if she’s available, Jon. Those ‘knowing animals’ weren’t just Kel’s dog and birdies, but a whole pack of dogs and cats Daine magicked a few months back.”

            “She did?”

            “She did. Masbolle told me she thought they needed all the help they could get.”

            “Very well. With Blayce found and killed she should have a bit less on her spying plate. Not that that means much, gods know, with all we ask of her. Now, my Lords, anything else tonight? Raoul?”

            “One thing, maybe, Jon. Those convict soldiers—might you order their magemarks cancelled? All else aside, it should help us recruit more of the condemned in the mines, and Kel’s shown a real knack for getting the best out of them. Same way she’s so good with the commoners and rank-and-file.”

            “Well enough. I’ll try Turomot. They certainly deserve something.”

            “I can send you their names.” Wyldon uncharacteristically hesitated. “Do you propose other rewards, sire?”

            “Eventually, certainly.” Jonathan frowned. “You think we should do something sooner?”

            “Maybe. It would go with their story.”

            “Mmm. What, though? A purse and a promise?”

            “I was thinking of some smaller, less usual purses. Those under arms were doing their duty, but the civilians—Mistress  Fanche and her Saefas, perhaps. Even young Tobe, from the number of beasts they bought back.”

            “Who?”

            “Mindelan’s boy with horse magic. The one who brought us word of the attack on Haven.”

            “Oh, yes. Alright.”

            “But for Mindelan herself … I don’t know.”

            “Then it must wait. Or you’ve a suggestion, Raoul?”

            “Not for Kel. But I wondered, while they’re rebuilding, if Roald might visit. And if it’s quiet enough, the Princess too. Kel’s close to both of them, and if the villagers from Rathhausak are there as well …”

            Jonathan’s face was very still. “Vanget?”

            “Fine by me, sire, if it’s quiet. And actually, it might help the Prince. You know he goes half-crazy cooped up here.”

            “Alright. I like it and I’ll talk to Thayet. Anything more? Then I must find Sir Myles, my Lords, and for once surprise him. Goodnight, and gods all bless.”

            As the King’s blue magic faded and Harailt let his own line to the flames drop, the blaze in the hearth vanished to show only ash and embers. Vanget grunted.

            “Never did understand how those fire-links go on working when they’ve no fuel left. These spellmirrors are much better, never mind that the mages needn’t stay. No offence, Harailt.”

            “None taken.” Harailt’s scholarly face was drawn. “What an astonishing evening. I don’t like how direct the gods are being, at all. For months even good seers have been saying everything’s splintered, and now this. Numair tells me Daine’s parents say we’re at some kind of crossroads in time, with even the gods waiting to see what happens. But something’s changed, obviously, with Blayce’s death.”

            “And the Kinslayer’s, maybe.” Vanget sounded thoughtful. “As best we can guess he was one of Maggur’s long-time hatchet-men. Before we had reports of him as Blayce’s keeper Myles reckoned he was in charge of Maggur’s hostages—so his loss may be a bigger blow for the Maggot than we know.”

            “Your mouth to Mithros’s ear.” Raoul hunched, cracking his knuckles. “I should go see Masbolle and his men. He said they lost two at Rathhausak and they’re a tight-knit bunch.”

            Vanget grunted. “What was the butcher’s bill, Wyldon? I’ll want copies of those reports she gave you as soon as you can, but I confess I’m curious.”

            “I haven’t looked.” Wyldon retrieved the crumpled scrolls Kel had given him, flattening them on his lap. “More credit to her. A full and legible report, written on the move. I still don’t have one from Hollyrose.” He shuffled papers. “This must be the … Mithros!”

            “What?” Raoul and Vanget spoke in unison.

            Wyldon didn’t look up but slowly reflattened the papers and began to read.

            “The Tortallan dead, excluding those found and buried at Haven. Before the Vassa. Hildurra Ward, clerk of Haven, bled out. Kelton of Hannaford, logger, hanged, and his wife Lerna, bled out in childbed; also her unborn.

            “At Vassa Bluffs, all found hanged. Senner and Anta Forgeman of Hannaford, smiths. Vordern of Tirrsmont, farrier. Broder Reed, convict soldier. Einur Peterson, army cook.

            “At Rathhausak, in battle. Gilead Lofts, Morun Locksman, Petter Miller, Cladir Sweep, Garto Freeman, and Jorvik Rider, convict soldiers of Haven. Corporal of the Own Jerol Fulcher and Ownsman Ardis Lofren, Third Company, on detached service. Windtreader, known as Happy, warhorse. Shepherd, a boarhound, and three nameless dogs of Haven.

            “In all, thirteen men, three women, one unborn, and the animals.”

            Vanget harrumphed. “Good detail. Good attitude, too. And lower numbers than I’d expected, Wyldon. You too surely?”

            “It wasn’t our casualties that made me exclaim, Vanget. It was the enemy’s.” Wyldon’s voice cracked slightly as he continued reading. “The Scanran dead. Between the Vassa and the Smiskir. Twenty-five soldiers, twenty-three adults and two youths. Ten soldiers, all adults.

            “At Pakkai Junction. Ninety-seven soldiers, eighty-one adults and sixteen youths. One-hundred-and-eleven armed slavers, ninety-nine adult men, seven youths, and five adult women.

            “In the Pakkai valley. Eighteen soldiers, all adult. Three killing devices.

            “At Castle Rathhausak. One-hundred-and-forty-six soldiers, all adult. Stenmun Kinslayer. Blayce Younger the Gallan.

            “In all, four-hundred-and-four, including twenty-five youths, five women, and three children already dead.”

            He looked up, shock plain on his face. “They killed more than twenty for one and lost less than one in three.”

            Vanget had been scribbling numbers as Wyldon read them and looked up, face grim. “Discounting our civilians but not the slavers, the ratio of dead is one to forty-four and some. Gods! Do you believe it?”

            “Kel doesn’t lie, Vanget.” Raoul’s voice was certain despite his own shock. “You heard her. And it makes sense, sort of—apart from the slavers, where Hollyrose said she somehow got the adult refugees free before she attacked, and the fight at Rathhausak, it sounds like whittling ’em down. She knows my line about changing the odds if you don’t like ’em. So, four defeats in detail. And from what Masbolle told me, Rathhausak was a successful night assault from within and without that achieved complete surprise. The fighting odds there were … what, five-to-one? I bet all but a score of those Scanrans died without their armour on.”

            “Gods is still right, though, Raoul.” Harailt reached to pour himself some long-cold juice. “I’m sure Keladry speaks nothing but the truth and equally sure the gods watched her fight. Even as we did.”

            “Maybe. But for all we were watching by magic, Harailt, there was no sign of anything but guts and skill in what we saw.”

            “I don’t deny it, but even so.” A sly look came into the mage’s eyes. “By the way, my Lords, what did you make of Keladry’s words to Blayce’s corpse about the King? I almost thought from her expression that she felt the Chamber was teasing her when it showed us that.”

            Raoul grinned. “I didn’t see Kel’s face but the look on Jon’s was priceless. And she was right on both counts. He wouldn’t countenance necromancy for a second and it’s far better he never be tempted.” His grin faded. “As we all learned from Thom of Trebond necromancy has a way of tempting men.”

            “Mithros!” Wyldon snapped his fingers and the others looked at him in surprise. “Do you not see the pattern? You were there, weren’t you, Goldenlake, when the Lioness killed Duke Roger?”

            “Both times, Cavall, as you well know. What of it? And what pattern?”

            “A Lady Knight kills a necromancer? Against all odds, twice over, in successive generations?”

            Raoul sat back, surprise on his face as on Vanget’s and Harailt’s. “Good point.” They all considered it. “No earthquake this time, though, thank Mithros and the Goddess.”

            Harailt nodded. “The latter, I think. Children are in her care and of all the Great Gods she and the Black God have always been said to loathe necromancy the most. It’s an offence against the natural orders of birth and death. I’ll mention your thought to Numair, Wyldon, if I may. It’s a very interesting coincidence.”

            “As you will, Harailt, but it’s no coincidence.” His voice slowed in thought. “Though perhaps while the gods acted through the Lioness, they have blessed us with Mindelan.” He paused, seeming embarrassed at what he’d said, and went on briskly “Be that as it may, my Lords, I’ve had enough theology for one night. And we should all be doing.”

            The meeting broke up, Vanget wishing them well and repeating his requests for copies of Kel’s and any other reports before disappearing from the spellmirror, while Harailt wandered out, muttering something about Numair. Wyldon followed but turned in the door to look back at Raoul, still slumped in his chair.

            “Come with me to see the refugees before you see Masbolle, Goldenlake? I’d be grateful for your sense of these Scanrans, and I imagine you’d like to hear what they have to say about their rescuers.”

            Sighing, Raoul heaved himself upright, feeling a greater liking for the former training master than he had for a while.

            “Of course.”

           

 * * * * *

 

Kel woke slowly, realising it was the kind of waking that followed deep healing. When she tried to open her eyes her blurry vision was full of tiny sparks, so she left them closed and considered. Her mouth felt foul and her limbs heavy, but warm and relaxed, and the pain in her shoulder was a fraction of what it had been. It felt bandaged but she didn’t seem to be wearing much else, and presumed she must be in an infirmary until the thought brought a rush of memory.

            Foremost was the profound relief of realising that the children and all their rescuers were at last safe from Scanrans and Tortallans alike, but hard on its heels came realisation that she had collapsed and been stripped to her breastband in front of her entire chain of command. Mortification jerked her eyes open and she simultaneously felt a weight stir by her leg, saw an out-of-focus sparrow peering down at her from the headboard, and heard a familiar voice.

            “You’re awake. Hold still a minute.”

            Neal felt her pulse and forehead, then nodded and helped her sit up a little, plumping a pillow behind her head before hurrying out. Jump looked on approvingly, tail thumping, and Nari hopped down to her uninjured shoulder, peeping softly as Neal returned, supporting her head to present her with one of his vile teas. How something so foul-tasting could cleanse her mouth Kel had no idea, and her reward for choking it down was both to feel her head clear and to have the tea replaced with a tall glass of a fruit twilsey she was trusted to hold for herself.

            “Drink up. You need fluid.” Neal shifted his chair and sat again, looking at her. His face had the pained expression she knew meant he was exasperated, blended with something she couldn’t identify. Lowering the glass to her chest, which had the benefit of holding the sheet in place to preserve her modesty, she looked at him affectionately.

            “What time is it?”

            “Late morning. You’ve been out for twelve hours. But the important thing, Kel, is that you’re an idiot.”           

            She thought about it. “I am?”

            “Yes, you are. Do you remember me asking you, oh, a dozen times while we were travelling, if you were alright? And you saying every single time you were fine? Yes? Well, you weren’t, because I didn’t do a good enough job on you at Rathhausak, for which I have been thoroughly scolded by my dear papa.”

            “Oh.” She tried a smile. “I told him you did all you possibly could, Neal, and more. Don’t be cross.”

            “Cross? Cross! I’m not cross with you, Kel. I’m … I’m …”

            “Upset?”

            He stared at her. “Try baffled and worried. Kel, you must have been in serious pain from that wound.”

            “It was only pain. I suppressed it.”

            “You suppressed it.” He shuddered. “Kel, you must have a brain in there somewhere so will you please use it. Pain is a warning. Serious pain is an alarm. It tells you something’s wrong. Something I could have fixed.”

            “I couldn’t risk wasting your Gift on me when we might have had to fight at any time. Suppose a child had been wounded, Neal? Suppose one had died because I thought my shoulder hurt too much? I’d never forgive myself.”

            “You didn’t think it hurt too much, Kel. It did hurt too much. And it’s not wasting the Gift when the alternative is doing yourself serious damage and fainting from blood loss!”

            She tried to hide her blushes in the glass of twilsey. “No fair, Neal. That was only because I tore it open again grabbing Irnai when she fainted. I didn’t realise it was bleeding so badly.”

            “And it was bleeding so badly because you hadn’t let me treat you as you needed.” He still sounded indignant but curiosity distracted him. “Why did Irnai faint, anyway? She was fine earlier and wandered off this morning as if nothing had happened, but father was fussing like a loon over her last night when he wasn’t flapping his arms about you and telling me off from here to Midwinter.”

            The images made Kel smile but caution gripped her tongue. “What did anyone else say about what happened?”

            “No-one said a gods-blessed thing to me. That’s why I’m asking you.”

            Kel hesitated. “I think I’d better stay quiet too, I’m afraid. But the Chamber spoke through her, so that’s all dealt with. Your father thought she fainted because of its power.”

            “Oh. Well, that makes sense.” He looked disappointed. “Can you really say nothing else, Kel?”

            “Not about Irnai.” The memory of the seer’s prophecy made her extremely uncomfortable and she thought it unlikely it would be made public any time soon. “For the rest, I reported. General Vanget and the King asked questions, were very happy Blayce and Stenmun were dead, and pardoned our disobedience.”

            Neal grinned. “Told you. What did the Stump say?”

            “I didn’t have the chance to talk to him properly. Nor to my Lord. It was all General Vanget and the King.” She turned the subject. “What were you and the others doing?”

            “Getting the younglings settled and having a long, glorious wash, mostly. Until I was summoned to explain your wound and be told off, that is.”

            She was glad to hear a teasing note return to his voice but gladder still when Duke Baird’s voice came from the doorway.

            “As was proper. How else will you learn?” He came forward, dropping a hand on Neal’s shoulder. “How are you feeling, Keladry? You lost a lot of blood.”

            “Fine, thank you, your Grace.”

            “I doubt it.” He shifted his hand to her bandaged shoulder, sending a pulse of magic into her, then a longer stream. “You should drink as much as you can and sleep again. And no more stoicism. Your weight’s down badly and you need to put it back. The gods know you’ll be busy again soon enough. Neal, there’s a soldier coming in with a badly crushed finger. You’re still too drained to help, but you should come watch the bonework.”

            With a quick smile he strode out, and Neal stood with a muttered curse. “I’ll be back.”

            Left to herself Kel stroked Nari with a gentle forefinger, then felt the healing tug at her mind and let her hand drop as her eyes closed. When she woke again the animals were gone and there was no sign of Neal, but an orderly was setting down a tray beside her bed. Seeing her eyes open he helped her to sit up, awkwardly clutching the sheet, and shifted the tray to her lap.

            “You’ve missed lunch by a ways, my Lady, but we saved you cold cuts and fruit. When you’ve eaten and drunk you’re cleared to rise and dress, but must keep your arm in a sling until His Grace says otherwise. There’s people who want to see you, then you’re to report to my Lord of Cavall.”

            He bustled out as Kel murmured thanks. Finding herself ravenous and thirsty she tackled the contents of the tray with gusto. Repletion and what seemed like a gallon of twilsey left her feeling sleepy again but her bladder was demanding she make it at least as far as the adjoining privy. Once there and more comfortable, simple decency and the waiting ewer of warm water required that she strip off the stained loincloth that was all she had on and cleanse herself from top to toe, working round the bandages on her shoulder. Much happier but sharply conscious of her nakedness she peered carefully round the privy door, prepared to make a dash for the sheets, but found the outer door closed and a pile of clothes folded neatly on the bed. A worn breastband and loincloth must belong to a Queen’s Rider; the clean breeches, shirt, and tunic were her own, and after a moment she realised her travel bag had been left here when news of Haven’s fall had sent her riding into the night.

            Decent again, though unshod, she reluctantly donned the last item, a linen sling, and let her arm rest below her breasts. The ease in her shoulder was palpable, and she wondered how soon she could return to her dawn glaive practice. Healers were always fusspots but the next battle didn’t wait on their caution, nor the next chore, and a warrior out of practice was a liability. Boots were all she needed to face the world and she wondered where hers had got to—and her armour, come to that. Fuelled with determination she opened the door and promptly found her waist and leg engulfed by Gydo and Meech; beyond them Tobe and Loesia rose from chairs, the former holding up her boots, cleaned and polished.

            Smiling at the pair, she hugged Gydo with her free arm and crouched to transfer it to Meech. Easing his grip on her leg the boy reached out gently to stroke the hand protruding from her sling and again buried his head against her.

            “You’re hurt.” His voice was almost inaudible. “Will you get better?”

            “Oh yes, sweeting. I’m all healed. I just have to rest my shoulder for a while.” She stroked his hair. “How are you? I’m so proud of you being so brave for so long.”

            He peeked up at her. “I was scared.”

            “So was I, Meech.” She eased him back so she could look straight at him. “Bravery isn’t not being scared. Everyone gets scared sometimes. It’s doing what you have to do even when you’re scared. And you did, brilliantly. You’re my hero, you know.”

            His smile was blinding. “And you’re mine.”

            She hugged him hard enough to produce a faint squeak, and rose slowly so whatever blood she had left didn’t drain from her head and embarrass her again. Meech held her leg and she let her good arm rest across Gydo’s shoulders as she met Tobe’s eyes. “How are you? And how’s your side?” He’d taken an arrow at Rathhausak.

            “Never better, Mother. The wound’s just a scar now, and I’m fed an’ washed an’ everythin’ but home.”

            “That’ll take a while, Tobe.” She reached to ruffle his hair affectionately. “Wherever home might turn out to be.”

            He nodded. “My lord said we’d be rebuildin’ soon as we can.”

            “Which my lord?”

            “Lord Wyldon.” Tobe never used Neal’s nickname for Mastiff’s commander. “You’re to see him straightaway. Let me do your boots.”

            She let herself be persuaded to a chair, exchanging a quick handclasp with Loesia. Sitting put her eyes at Gydo’s level, and while Tobe eased her boots on she asked quiet questions about the girl’s welfare, and how other children were faring. Reassured, and intrigued by Meech’s excited claim that ‘the big, curly man’ had told them the King was very pleased with them all, she accepted Loesia’s hand to haul herself to her feet and they set off towards the sunshine streaming through the infirmary door.

            Outside the girls skipped away, Meech happily swinging between them, and Kel walked slowly with Tobe towards the command building. Halfway across the parade ground she realised the casual conversations and background noise of a working fort had dropped away as soldiers stared at her, not only on the ground but from the gateway and alures. Her Yamani mask slipped into place but when clapping started she could not prevent herself flushing scarlet. A glance at Tobe showed him beaming boyish pride and her mortification was complete when Lord Wyldon appeared in the doorway of the command building, drawn by the noise, and stood watching too, puzzlement vanishing into his usual impassivity as he took in what was happening.

            “Mindelan.” She had expected his voice to be sardonic but it was simply calm as he inspected her briefly. “You’re looking better. Come in.”

            He went back inside and Kel followed, squeezing Tobe’s shoulder in silent thanks and being rewarded with a dazzling smile as he trotted off towards the stables. The door to Lord Wyldon’s office stood open and he waved her to a chair, closing the door behind her before pouring her yet more twilsey and seating himself behind his neatly crowded desk.

            “Baird says you need to drink.”

            Wishing her face would cool faster she thanked him and sipped, sitting as upright as her chair allowed. To her surprise he leaned back, one hand rising to touch his scarred cheek and rub his forehead. He seemed oddly hesitant but sat forward again, taking a breath.

            “Lady Knight—Keladry—I owe you an apology. Two in fact.”

            She managed to catch her jaw before it dropped.

            “You owe me an apology? Surely I owe one to you, my Lord, for my disobedience.”

            He waved a hand. “No, no. We dealt with that and one apology I owe you is for the misguided order you disobeyed. I placed the refugees in your care and had not relieved you of that responsibility. I should not have ordered you to abandon them.”

            Uneasily she let her gaze fall to the papers on his desk. “You had other responsibilities, my Lord, of which I knew nothing.”

            “Maggur’s little foray, you mean? It makes no odds, and events have shown you were right to do as you did. Look at me, please.”

            Startled she raised her eyes and saw his expression was at once compassionate and, she would have sworn, embarrassed.

            “The other apology is more complicated, I’m afraid, and more serious. Do you recall what the King and I said to you last night?”

            She thought back and realised what he must mean. “You both said my analysis was flawed.”

            “Yes, military and political alike, for the same reason—you placed no value on yourself. Some of that is simply lack of experience of what the King, or people like myself and Duke Turomot, will and will not do to placate people like Stone Mountain and Genlith. But some is not and in large part my fault. Don’t look so startled—we both know I did little to encourage you as a page and much to make it harder for you than it should have been.”

            Kel’s surprise was compounded by his wry smile. When she’d first seen him here in the north, at Giantkiller, she’d realised that in field command he was happier than he’d ever been as training master. But she still couldn’t recall seeing him smile.

            “In my defence, I might say boys do not usually need their self-importance boosting, and your mask led me to believe your defiance of convention was fed by a pride that would sustain you. But I entirely misunderstood your modesty, and your clear inability last night to understand how important a figure you are becoming must be addressed, however uncomfortable we both find it.”

            His gaze swung away for a moment before returning to her.

            “I also belatedly realise that my decision to place you in command at Haven must have seemed a further denigration of your abilities. I believed you might think, however wrongly, that I was protecting you from front-line combat. And I knew you understood my decision was nevertheless genuine, that you were—are—the best commander available to me. But I regret it did not occur to me that you might think it a political refusal to credit your worth.”

            Kel had never heard him speak so openly, but as she tried to absorb his words she realised she’d never had a genuine conversation with him, even reporting to him as a commander—and his demeanour towards her as training master was at the root of that. But there was no trace of that reserved disapproval today. She fumbled for words.

            “I didn’t, exactly, my Lord. And I soon realised how much the work mattered, and that I enjoyed it. It was just … I don’t know, it was like waiting to be picked as a squire, before Lord Raoul came back to the palace and I thought with Lady Alanna forbidden from choosing me no knight would want to take The Girl.”

            His wry smile returned. “I can see that. And I realised last night, after the drama, that you reminded me of your attitude after rescuing your maid. You truly believed then, though nothing that happened was any fault of yours, that I would make you repeat all four years.”

            “That was the rule.”

            He snorted. “That was a threat, Keladry. What possible use would it be to the realm to make someone as capable as you kick your heels for four years repeating training you had mastered? In any case, the threat was designed to ensure punctuality, not punish someone who was criminally prevented from arriving at all.”

            The reference to Joren’s kidnapping of Lalasa brought a look of extreme distaste to his austere face.

            “Similarly, penalties for disobedience are severe for good reason. But what is necessary when a soldier is a real troublemaker, or a coward, is hardly called for when a full commander knows their senior is ignorant of something that matters, and in disregarding a misguided last-minute order saves hundreds of lives that would otherwise be lost.”

            Kel’s eyes widened steadily as he spoke. “But you were only ignorant because I hadn’t explained what I feared would happen to the children.”

            “And you think I would have heeded you?” He shook his head. “I should like to believe I would have listened carefully, but if the Chamber hadn’t made its appearance last night I’m not sure I’d believe you now, though I know you don’t lie. And that too is an aspect of the problem, Keladry, because the politics of your knighthood as a woman would have been at work.” He tapped fingers on his desk, slowly, brow furrowed. “It is unjust and unwise, but also an effect of your unique position, and will ease as more women undergo their ordeals. Did you know there will be three more female pages starting in the autumn?”

            Her startlement showed, to Lord Wyldon’s evident amusement.

            “You shouldn’t be so surprised—it’s largely your doing. You must have known people were watching you closely, and heard them at the tilts on that never-ending Progress.”

            “Well, yes, but I didn’t expect …”

            “Anyone but your close friends to approve your example? Including the King and Padraig haMinch?” He shook his head again. “I can’t blame you. Mithros knows we’ve given you little reason to expect more of us.” His fingers drummed again. “We cannot deal with all of that today, but I suggest you consider carefully—from a military as well as political angle—that those nobles who are called or call themselves conservative are of very different kinds. There are those for whom pride of blood is overriding, as for Stone Mountain and his son. That kind may serve in the army or the Own, but under His Majesty you will not find them commanding. Glaisdan of Haryse was the last and you know what happened to him, Black God rest his soul.” He made the circle on his chest. “Then there are traditionalists like myself and Vanget, who believe crown service is an essential discipline and dislike change for the sake of change, when we see no need. But when change proves itself or we do see a practical need we are at heart realists and accept it. Yes?”

            Captivated, she nodded.

            “So. Your mistake was to confuse what the first might say with what the second would do. Vanget as much as I doubted your fitness for knight training when you began, and we would both prefer a world in which women did not have to fight at all, let alone train for knighthood. But we’re not likely to get it and neither of us now doubts your exceptional competence as a knight and commander. Nor do men like His Grace of Naxen and my Lord of Legann, who have followed your progress carefully and drawn their own conclusions.”

            It seemed to be Kel’s day for blushing uncontrollably and she looked down again. Lord Wyldon sighed softly.

            “Goldenlake said you’d need it spelling out. Keladry, Haven may be a refugee camp rather than a fort, but it is a full command. When you and the other pages ran into those bandits, what qualities did the others show? And what are their current appointments? Put it together. You are the only commander of your generation anywhere and if you live you’ll replace Goldenlake at the Own within a decade. Come to that, next time the Scanrans decide they want a war you might well be in Vanget’s shoes. Don’t look at me like that—it’s no more than truth.”

            Kel found herself beyond embarrassment, or perhaps just no longer concerned with it as she strove to digest his astonishing words. It was true Raoul had always implied she’d command but she’d never entirely believed him, thinking neither knights nor soldiers would accept a girl in authority. But enough was enough, her tongue had at last unfrozen, and she met his gaze.

            “Forgive me, my Lord, but if I didn’t believe command at Haven was quite the same as command at Mastiff or Steadfast, I had reason. You have eight companies. I had four squads. You have a double wall reaching thirty feet, with earthworks and abatis. I had a single palisade that struggled to reach fifteen. You have a score of battle-mages. I had one healer. And while I realised that under regulations I was technically senior to anyone in the district other than yourself or my Lord of Goldenlake, there was nothing to suggest anyone took that seriously.”

            He surprised her again with what she could only call a grin.

            “Better, Mindelan. Much better. And you’re right on all counts—we did not sufficiently consider Maggur’s tactics when Haven was built and staffed, and the fact you were sent straight there prevented me from integrating you properly into the command structure, as I would had you been here. But we shan’t be making the same mistakes again, and these new spellmirrors of Numair’s are a great boon.”

            She’d thought as much when she first saw one the night before, and nodded. “I wondered if they were Master Numair’s work.”

            “A Carthaki spell he adapted, he says. I’ll make sure you get one.”

            As she had passed beyond embarrassment Kel found herself beyond surprise, and raised her eyebrows in query. Lord Wyldon grinned again.

            “Better still. Yes, you remain in your command. Now”—he gestured to the district map on the wall—“despite that prophecy there’s nowhere we can put refugees except the Greenwoods valley. Anak’s Eyrie is deserted and we can’t hope to get anyone back there at least until Giantkiller is rebuilt. Riversedge and Bearsford have taken in everyone they can support, and Tirrsmont won’t even take his own.” He scowled. “So the Greenwoods it must be.”

            Kel nodded shortly. She didn’t like the logic and bitterly resented the selfish arrogance of the lord of Tirrsmont, father of the knight who’d tried to kill her in a joust, whose only concern with the death and displacement of hundreds of his liegefolk was his loss of tithes. The young lord of Anak’s Eyrie had died defending his exposed fief, leaving no heir, so he deserved no blame, but she knew the refugees were barred from the south only by nobles who wanted no trouble or expense. She watched as Lord Wyldon carefully steepled his fingers.

            “With the death of Blayce the situation changes somewhat. We no longer have reason to fear a raid of the kind Stenmun led, but do have reason to fear attacks targeted specifically on you and your people. Giantkiller will be enlarged, and as many additional companies as we can find stationed there, to screen you. But Haven must be rebuilt with far better defences. Tell me, how much have you studied fortification and defensive works? You know some of the terms.”

            Kel managed a shrug with her good shoulder. “Nothing formal, my Lord, beyond page-classes, but Lord Raoul had me study anywhere the Own took us. We talked about what we saw and I read military history when I have the chance.”

            “Fair enough. And you did a good, job improvising at Haven with those stones, but you might look at this.” He slid a small dog-eared book towards her. “Orchan of Eridui. He wasn’t very original but he is clear, and he had an idea or two worth knowing about mageblasts. In any case, you’ve fought behind walls enough to know what works and what’s only for show. And this time you’ll have proper resources to work with.”

            “I will?”

            “Yes. On Vanget’s orders Haven is to be rebuilt as a true fort, and he’ll be sending the eastern building team to join our own. So your first job, when you’re recovered and Numair can get here, is to choose a site and get started. You’ll have any refugees who are able and willing, and we’ll supply guards and a commissariat until you can get kitchens running behind decent walls. In the longer run, though, there’ll be limits on the soldiers I can give you, especially with Giantkiller to man as well.”

            “I understand, my Lord.” And while she didn’t like this logic any more than the other she did understand. Though a smaller country with fewer people, Scanra’s fighting strength represented far more of its total population than Tortall’s, and she knew from her years in the Own that recruitment to Crown forces was a constant struggle. Tortall had taken heavy casualties only a decade ago during the Immortals War, with all too many places still underpopulated and making good damage sustained. And in this war the killing devices had already taken an appalling toll. But it wasn’t just soldiers as such who mattered. “About how many should I expect to have?”

            She saw Wyldon review numbers in his head. “A company, in addition to Connac’s squad and the convict soldiers you already have. Perhaps more, but if so they’ll be convicts too. Given the likely length of your perimeter you’ll still need refugees to help man the walls, but that’ll give you a genuine force to put in the field at need.”

            Kel’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “A regular company?”

            “Maybe. More likely scratch.”

            “So no company staff.”

            He frowned. “Probably not. Why?”

            “Mages. And clerks”

            “Ah. Clerks I can manage but mages are a problem. We’ve been badly stretched, magically, by the killing devices. We’re not sure if they actually targeted mages or if it was just that mages felt they had to try to fight them first. Either way, our mage numbers are down.”

            “So are the enemy’s, by one at least.” Kel’s voice was edged and it was his turn to look surprised. “I want at least one mage, my Lord. One decent battlemage, with enough juice to blast anyone he’s likely to encounter. Or we’ll be nicely penned-in ducks when any Scanran party that does have a mage worth his feed turns up.”

            He rubbed his forehead in that characteristic gesture. “If we think you’re likely to be targeted at least once, we can hardly suppose Maggur would not send such a mage against you. Very well. Haven will have first claim on any mage I can get.”

            Something snapped in the back of Kel’s mind. “Forgive me, my Lord, but you already have dozens. So do Lord Raoul and General Vanget.” Her mask was already so far off she laid it aside and locked eyes, passion pouring into her voice. “Do you know what I was thinking when you rode off and left me to bury my dead at Haven? That your Company Eight with one hundred well-armed men had mages who could hold four killing devices at once. And that my five hundred half-trained civilians had faced six or more of those nightmares with no-one but a healer and a hedgewitch. I believe you said you wouldn’t be repeating your mistakes.”

            He stared, surprise shifting into a thin smile. “You were always a fast learner. And you’re right, again. Unless some further threat like the devices enters the field—gods forfend—I can reasonably strip one mage from each company for you.” He frowned. “Or, better, take the scratch company here and give you a regular one, mages and all. You’d lose Hollyrose, though. The company second would be in charge of patrols.”

            Kel thought hard for a moment. “I think Merric would be willing to serve as joint second. He knows he made a mistake at Haven, not believing the sparrows. There wasn’t anything he could have done anyway and Goddess knows he did his best after, but that’s why he insisted the others take him along, I think. They had to tie him to his horse.”

            He snorted. “I imagine they did, though that’s rich from you.”

            Kel was very glad she still seemed to be beyond embarrassment. “I wonder where we learned such attitudes, my Lord.” His mouth twitched. “But the point is that time as second to someone experienced would be of benefit. Goddess knows I’d prefer it myself. And I’d like to keep Merric, if I may. He’s popular with the refugees, too.”

            “I thought his attitudes towards them were a bit stiff.”           

            Kel did her one-shoulder shrug. “At first, a little. But he was unsure of himself, as we all were. And while he did think Neal and I were a bit soft on commoners he was never like Quinden, or that lord of Tirrsmont. And he soon learned. Everyone did at Haven.”

            “Very well, then. And that reminds me—you said in your report that before you crossed the Vassa a patrol led by Marti’s Hill passed within yards of you and saw nothing. What were their scouts doing?”

            “There were none, my Lord.” She knew her voice had flattened. “Just Quinden and ten mounted soldiers behind him.” She hesitated, but it had been an afternoon for truths. “I didn’t really want to mention it. It feels like telling tales. But if we’d been Scanrans he and those men would all be dead, and the men deserve better.”

            “Quite right.” Wyldon looked both annoyed and thoughtful. “And harder to say because you dislike him, I imagine. I’d find it so. But if the fool had no scouts words must be had. He knew Giantkiller had fallen and that he was very much the front line. Is it just arrogance, do you think?”

            Even in this conversation Kel was surprised he would ask such a question. “Mostly. He’s never thought rules apply to him. But he’s also lazy and I’m not sure he’s ever realised that cribbing an answer isn’t the same as working it out.”

            Wyldon smiled. “A useful summary. Goldenlake was a good teacher.”

            “So were you, my Lord.”

            “Not so much, I think.”

            “You’re wrong.”

            He stared at her flat denial, but Kel had had a chance to absorb some of the astonishing things he had said to her when this strange conversation started, what felt like hours ago. The memory of the King’s words the night before was also burning in her mind—the truths she had heard Wyldon acknowledge five years before, when he resigned as training master, and there were things she wished she had said then.

            “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, my Lord, and the mistake you made with Joren and Vinson wasn’t in what you taught them. It was what you didn’t teach them. The tension between us meant it took me longer than it should to realise you credited them with the same honour you have yourself, so it never occurred to you to teach them chivalry as well as combat. But both were honourless.”

            She smiled crookedly. “All those times we fell down, did you ever wonder about the chivalry of three seniors fighting one junior? Or about the kind of person who bullies not to gain results but because they covet fear as greenly as any stormwing? Of course you didn’t. You’d no more do such things yourself than you’d strike a servant or one of the littles. I know he annoys you but Neal has the right words for Joren and Vinson. He says they were lame in their souls as a man is halt in the leg. In the end even the Chamber couldn’t fix Joren, but your mistake was one of omission, not commission.”

            He was still staring, a very strange expression on his face.

            “As for myself, I’m not sure. You and the King are right about how I was thinking but I need time to know if I agree about why I do that.” She hesitated. “I don’t deny the attitudes I faced played a part. But I fear it goes deeper.” Even today, in this conversation, she wasn’t about to tell him she thought the open contempt of some of her sisters and in-laws for her shape and ambitions had sunk barbs in her as deeply as the bullying assault by her brother that birthed her fear of heights. “And I did not fear you would act in prejudice, my Lord, only that you would have to act in duty.”

            His glance was penetrating. “I am glad to know it. But you did fear the King would act in expedience, hmm?”

            She faced it squarely. “Yes. I don’t like him, not that that matters. But I don’t trust him either. ”

            “Nor should you, altogether. He is a king, and does as he must.”

            “I know.”

            “And yet you will find with closer knowledge that he is as loyal as you to those he counts friends and allies.” Suddenly he waved a hand. “But all this can be boiled down to something much simpler—the law of success. Had you dragged in here a failure with a casualty roll and no refugees, or been captured and given information, your fears might not have been altogether foolish though I would have preferred no charge. But success changes everything.” His thin smile returned. “Which is the story of your career, so perhaps you should just keep doing it.” He leaned back. “Now, I have things I must do and you should go see your refugees. They were concerned to hear you were in the infirmary and will appreciate some reassurances.”

            “Of course, my Lord. May I tell them about rebuilding?”

            “By all means.” He hesitated before continuing stiffly. “And there is one more thing. I have several times used your personal name but you have not presumed on mine. I would be honoured if in private you would do so.”

            Yet again Kel caught her jaw from dropping by a whisker and spoke in shock. “But you don’t even call Lord Raoul anything but Goldenlake.”

            “We are colleagues, not friends. But you and I …” He swallowed, and looked her in the eye. “I once said I spoke to you as my daughter. That was an impertinence, however sincere. But I will say plainly I have taught no-one I more admire, and given how we have spoken together today …”

            I am a lake. I am calm. Kel didn’t need the second ellipsis from a man whose speech was always resoundingly crisp to know how embarrassed he was. How vulnerable. Who would have imagined that? Slowly she stood, gathering herself before offering her good hand.

            “The honour is mine, Wyldon.”

            He took it.

            A minute later Kel found herself once more standing scarlet-faced in the parade ground, holding Orchan of Eridui and aware of sentries contenting themselves glancing at her from the corners of their eyes. After depositing Orchan in her rooms, where she found her armour and travel pack, all clean, she wandered to the refugee barracks, then out to the tents below the walls, letting inner turmoil fade into the warmth of adults and excited hugs of children, answering endless questions about her sling. Jump and Nari found her there and she endured the peeps of the sparrow’s scolding as she tucked herself onto Kel’s good shoulder.

            Sensing some signs of the haunting nightmares she knew so well, and mindful of Neal’s warning, she gathered Fanche, Saefas, and Olka Valestone into quiet conversation. Neal’s analogy with draining a wound met with sharp nods, and other adults were drawn in. Relieved, Kel also spread word of the rebuilding, asking for opinions about the site, and promptly gained a volley of ideas that added up to higher walls, concern about what would happen to the ruins of Haven, and the need to keep as much of the valley’s arable land as possible.

            Returning towards the gate, Nari on her shoulder and Jump at her heels, she met Owen, Merric, and Seaver heading the other way. Exchanging hugs she gathered Faleron had already returned to duty, Merric had at last completed his report, and Owen had not been blamed by Wyldon for the death of Happy nor (after stern words) for following Kel, and had begun to forgive himself. She also heard a mixed account of the knights’ tense but uneventful return with the adults, and was delighted to realise they were on their way to check on refugees they had come to know in the peculiar intimacy of that journey. Owen, similarly, was off to see some children he said reminded him of his little brother, killed by bandits with his mother.

            “It’s sad,” he remarked. “Odd, but nice too. And I do think they were brave.”

            Smiling Kel bade them farewell and went in search of Lord Raoul. Her progress was delayed by encounters with a respectful Sergeant Connac, who managed to convey enthusiasm at remaining under her command and greeted Jump handsomely, and then with Neal, who suspiciously felt her forehead and pulse before beginning to mutter about teas. She was tempted to tell him what had passed between her and Wyldon but reserved the pleasure and made her escape by directing him to a nasty suspicion of a sniffle in one of the younglings. Finally she was able to slip behind the command building to the guest quarters for visiting officers, and knock softly on Raoul’s door.

            She was in luck and he contemplated her with a grin. “Come in, Kel. I was hoping to see you. I’m back to Steadfast in the morning. Dom and his lads too, I’m afraid. Juice?”

            With it he bought a strip of jerky for Jump and a handful of seed for Nari, and they talked easily for a while, about the ‘little army’ of Maggur’s that Raoul’s and Wyldon’s men had smashed and the fight at Rathhausak. He quizzed her hard for a moment about how she’d used the forces available to her, then blew out a breath.

            “Hag’s bones, Kel. You’ve a spine of steel as well as the luck of the gods. What you needed was blazebalm for the barracks.”

            “I know, but I’m actually glad we had none. Neal would have had to set it off, and I’d as soon not leave him with that kind of nightmare. It’s bad enough with spidrens.” She shuddered at those memories.

            “Point. But it’s better than being killed.” He sat forward. “Kel, I know I believe in whittling down odds, and you did it magnificently. But gods! Twenty-nine to rescue two hundred children and fight one-hundred-and-fifty experienced men? It was a desperation throw.”

            Kel nodded. “It was that or give up and go home. And if I can’t take a joke I shouldn’t have joined.”

            He laughed at the old saw. “Right you are. And a knight’s life is all cheer and glory.”

            She laughed back, then gathered herself. “May I ask you something, my Lord?”

            He scowled hugely. “Of course you may. And what’s all this my-lording? If I’ve told you once I’m just Raoul, I’ve told you a hundred times. And why in Mithros’s name are you blushing like that?”

            Hesitantly Kel explained that she found herself on first-name terms with Wyldon, and after a moment he collapsed into his chair with a long whistle followed by a guffaw.

            “Kel, that’s … superb. I always knew he was a decent old stick, even when I wanted to brain him for sheer stubbornness. You join a very select band. Even Jon feels it’s a liberty to omit the man’s title.”

            Kel gathered herself. “Actually it was the king I wanted to ask about.”

            “Oh yes? You’re blushing again. Out with it.”

            She retreated into a fragile dignity. “I realise there’s nothing to be done about appearing before his Majesty in very little except breeches and a breastband.”

            Raoul’s eyes twinkled. “It was rather spectacular. But if you will refuse healings when you need ’em …”

            “I know, and if I didn’t Neal has already reminded me.”

            “I bet he has. Baird was quite agitated.”

            “Yes, yes. Healers!” Raoul grinned unrepentantly. “But what I wanted to ask was if the King was angry.”

            “Angry? About seeing you receive treatment you needed?”

            “No. About what I said.”

            “Which bit?”

            She glared at him. “To Blayce’s corpse.”

            “Oh, that. Gods, no. It goosed him magnificently and his face was a picture, but he won’t be angry. We didn’t discuss it but I’ll bet you he was impressed, and devoutly glad you did spare him the temptation. As kings go Jon’s really not that touchy, especially when people hand him great big surprise presents.” He grinned at her. “Kel, I don’t recommend you try shouting at him the way Alanna and I do. Gary too, sometimes, and Thayet often. We were all young together, and it’s different. But Jon’s got pretty good truthsense, and he won’t punish anyone for honest words loyally spoken. All else aside, he knows it doesn’t pay. And nothing you said to his face, nor in that weird vision, was anything but true and loyal.” He raised his glass to her. “Nice move with Stenmun, by the way. I hadn’t really thought about using a glaive like that, for all it’s a move in one of your dances.”

            Accepted his assurance, she took the lighter gambit gratefully and they fell back into chat for a moment, before she rose and thanked him.

            “Anytime, Kel.”

            Parting, she couldn’t resist telling him that Meech had christened him ‘the big curly man’ and Tobe said he made a pair with the Storkman.

            “The Storkman?”

            “Master Numair. It’s what Daine’s pony calls him, apparently.”

            “Cloud?” He guffawed again. “That’s a hoot. I wonder if Buri knows. And I’m happy to be big and curly for Meech. He’s the little boy whose doll’s yarn you followed?”

            “That’s right. I’ve promised to get him a new one. I thought Lalasa would have some nice red wool.”

            He ruffled her hair. “You’re a treasure, Kel. And your report’s a classic. If you don’t see them I’ll give Dom and the others your best. And there’s the wedding at Steadfast next month, of course—you won’t be missing that. Now, go find some food and then your bed.”

            Comforted by his simple friendship, she went.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three — Surveying

20 June – 2 July

 

It was four days before Kel was allowed to leave off her sling. With the distraction of Samradh ceremonies and her unmarked birthday past she tried to invent a pattern dance using only her good shoulder—an exercise watched by soldiers with caution and Baird with exasperation. When he reluctantly gave permission to work her shoulder again, he was healer-blunt.

            “Keladry, the axe-point hit your shoulder-blade, and the bone really didn’t like it. I’ve speeded healing, but it must finish on its own. Stick to slow exercises for at least a week. No push-ups or pull-ups or anything of that kind for ten days, and no tumbling. Make sure you eat well too—meat, milk, cheese—and I should check that bone again in a month or so.”

            She obeyed, knowing she’d be a fool to abuse the luck she’d had in both Queenscove healers but disliking the limitation intently before deciding it was a useful challenge. With her refugees in Mastiff’s charge she had little to do administratively, though she spent time every day with the children and usually ate with the adults; Peachblossom and Hoshi enjoyed extended grooming and Jump was thoroughly washed, to the sparrows’ amusement. Once both Kel’s arms were again her own she scrounged swords and spears from the fort’s armourer and restarted training sessions for the refugees, Tortallans, Scanrans, adults, and children alike, which led to another, less welcome lesson for herself.

            At Haven the scorn of army regulars for her egalitarian approach had been tempered by respect for results; here soldiers seemed to expect to see her training civilians at arms; nor was a single voice raised to protest training Scanrans. Sergeants and corporals, Connac among them, went out of their way to help, demonstrating exercises to those having difficulty and cutting down spears for younger children. Connac had been her first real supporter in training them beside the adults, approving the deadly seriousness with which even under-tens practiced staff and spearwork, and she sought him out to thank him for whatever magic he’d worked on her behalf here. Smiling, he shook his head.

            “Oh, when I’ve been asked I’ve said what I saw, Lady Kel, and they heard me well enough. But it’s not me you’ve to thank. You put yourself on the line for your people, army and civilian alike, when war sold ’em down the river. That goes a long way with us.” He shrugged. “It’s a lot of why I came with you. Someone had to. And word’s out it was you that stopped the killing devices when you rescued the children and killed that mage, so there’s not a man here who hasn’t thanked Mithros and the Black God both for blessing us with you.”

            He paused thoughtfully, sucking his teeth.

            “And begging your pardon, my Lady, but you’re like my Lord of Goldenlake with those lads of his. Plenty of fun with hard work but no nonsense when it counts, and never any needless temper or injustice.” He shrugged. “The lads here like you, they respect you, and they’re very thankful to you. I couldn’t stop ’em helping you if I tried. And if you want anything else doing, you’ve only to say.”

            Back in her room, once again red-faced, she decided she was tired of such embarrassments. It struck her that the Lioness must have had a similar problem becoming famous and she smiled at the thought of the things Sir Alanna might have said before realising she’d just compared herself with the age’s greatest heroine, and blushing again. Thoroughly irritated with herself she tucked Orchan of Eridui under her arm and took herself off to a quiet corner of the kitchen garden.

            After working steadily through the short treatise she decided Wyldon had been exactly right. She hadn’t really learned anything new save a few words, but the principles of defensive fortification were now clear in her mind. An enemy’s approach was made difficult and exhausting with slopes, ditches, and obstacles. The abatis protected the base of the outer wall and if an enemy did surmount it, using ladders, the gap between the walls was a killing field for well-armed defenders on the alure of the inner wall. Short of warmagery or siege engines, the danger was hinged ladders or planks that could span the gap from the allering of the outer wall to the parapet of the inner, but unless the alure were seriously undermanned, attackers would have to be prepared to spend blood like water. Most weren’t, and successful attacks almost always breached the one inevitable weak-point in any enclosing wall.

            Her memory of shattered, gaping gates at Giantkiller and Haven underlined Orchan’s blunt conclusion. After describing the defences a gatehouse barbican should have, from multiple portcullises to traps and positions covering the roadway—a scale of construction even Mastiff lacked—he did devote a couple of pages to ways whereby the approach to a gate might be protected. She read that passage twice but the long and short of it stayed the same, that if a gate were to serve its whole purpose and let your own people in and out, it could be made to admit others. The only thing that struck her was the observation that it was desirable to restrict the level space before a gate, and that when the fortified position was atop a hill the gate-road should turn, narrow, and rise sharply just before reaching it. A trap in the roadway itself might be possible, she supposed, wondering how deep a pit would have to be to be effective. There had been another mention of mageblasts in an earlier chapter, about ladderwork, and she flipped back to find it.

            The siege of Rostholm in 118 is famous as a successful escalade, but if the assailants were bold and well equipped, with surprise on their side, Lord Grogar had placed overmuch faith in the height of his walls and paid dearly for undermanned alures. A more interesting lesson is that the smaller castle at Graverran did not fall, though assaulted by another division of haMinch’s army on the same night, using the same method. Its commander, Grogar’s elder son but cut from another cloth, had filled large nets (to which mageblasts were attached) with rocks, and suspended them below every second merlon of his outer parapets. When the attempted escalade began the alert duty commander fired the mageblasts, and the resulting rockfalls smashed most ladders and inflicted considerable casualties on troops clustered around them. The fallen rocks proved awkward obstacles to any further escalade, and after desultory exchanges the surviving haMinchi forces, learning their fellows had taken Rostholm, withdrew in search of easier pickings.

            Kel vaguely recalled the more enterprising younger Grogar coming to an unfortunate end of some kind, but she very much liked his rocks. At Haven she had used nets against killing devices but hadn’t considered their use as passive weapons, holding something back until need arose. And such passivity, she thought with rising excitement, might be applied more widely. She and a score of men had spent a back-breaking morning making safe a pile of rocks fallen from crags on the valley’s western side that had threatened the field below—but if a mage were available for heavy lifting, and rockpiles rested on cradles mined with mageblasts, she could put lethal traps in many places. Roads might be blocked as well as places to stand ladders. And much as she hated the stuff she was going to have to lay hands on blazebalm too, for one good thing about ladders was that they burned. The problem would be making sure you didn’t set fire to your outer wall. Energised, she trotted back towards her room, but crossing the parade ground heard herself hailed by Owen.

            “Kel, I was looking for you. Master Numair’s here.” Coming up to her he grinned. “I know you want to be doing but don’t get too excited. He can’t go to the Greenwoods until the day after tomorrow because he’s making spellmirrors, but the Wildmage should be here by then, too.” He leaned in confidentially. “She’s at Anak’s Eyrie, negotiating with a spidren. Can you believe it?”

            Kel stared astonishment. Spidrens didn’t negotiate or come in good and bad flavours, like so many immortals. But their babies scream when we burn them. She choked down the thought: little spidrens meant big spidrens and all spidrens were bad.

            “I know. But it’s interesting, I suppose. Different, anyway. Oh, and Master Numair wants to see you as soon as you like.” He brightened. “There’s a slap-up meal tonight, with that boar that was silly enough to charge Seaver yesterday. We’re all invited.”

            “Who’s we?”

            “We heroes of the Great Rescue. Isn’t it jolly?” At her horrified expression his face fell. “What’s wrong?”

            “Are you seriously telling me this dinner is for us, Owen?”

            “Well of course it is.” A light came into his eye. “Don’t tell me you haven’t seen it, Kel? You wrote it.”

            “I wrote what? Owen, if you don’t explain yourself very clearly right now, I shall feed you to Peachblossom.”

            “The King has published your report, Kel.” His enthusiasm returned full-bore. “You write beautifully, you know. My Lord had me post a copy on the general noticeboard. He says it’s being proclaimed in Corus and right along the border.”

            “Oh.” Kel felt hollow. She was impressed that the tactic she’d suggested had been put into effect so soon, but it hadn’t occurred to her that King Jonathan would not write his own version of events but simply publish hers. She swallowed.

            “Don’t you want to be a hero, Kel? Heroine, I mean.”

            “Not really.”

            “Too late.” He patted her shoulder. “You’ll get used to it.” He frowned. “Actually, you should be already because you’ve always been one. It’s the rest of us who ought to be surprised. And we are!”

            His logic baffled her and she looked at him warily. “You are?”

            “Yes. I mean, I knew we’d all done a good thing, and that was jolly. But I didn’t expect you’d say such nice things about us all, or that they’d be proclaimed like this. And you mentioned Happy! He’s famous too. I wanted to thank you for that.”

            She’d written her report hoping to protect her friends and cringed at the thought of Neal—and Dom—reading her praises of them. But her mind’s eye offered a vision of Lord Raoul laughingly calling her report a classic and she heard his bad-man’s voice observing to a dubious squire that reports were meant to be read, and you never did know what might be done with them. Uncertainly she smiled at Owen.

            “I just said what was true, you know.”

            “No you didn’t, Mother. You left out everything bad and polished up the good till we all gleamed like armour. The only person you didn’t mention besides the smugglers was yourself, but I think the King’s taken care of that because the whole thing’s headed, now let me get this right, The report of Lady Knight Commander Keladry of Mindelan on her successful mission to rescue Tortallan civilians and children abducted by the Scanran Kinslayer and to end the evil work of Maggur’s necromancer. I think that’s it. And your signature’s at the bottom—Keladry of Mindelan, Lady Knight Commander. The casualty roll’s been posted too, just as you recorded it.”

            Appalled, she stalked across the parade ground to the offending noticeboard only to find Owen had been word perfect, though she saw with relief that her mention of Quinden’s idiocy had been deleted. Owen stood grinning when she finally turned from the absurd display, and a circle of solemn soldiers stood watching them both. Their clapping the other day had been for rescuing the children, but now the demand they represented was palpable and she couldn’t pretend she didn’t understand why they hungered for the success and safety she’d been made to represent. Mama and Papa will read that report. And Anders, Inness, Conal. Actually, that thought left her feeling rather warm. Meeting her sisters-in-law again would also find her with a new advantage: not many cows were heroines, after all; nor lumps. And if she was honest, once she’d had the chance to think about the astonishing things Wyldon had said about her command abilities, she’d been far more gratified then embarrassed. Suddenly confident, she raised an eyebrow at the soldiers.

            “You do realise that thing’s been polished like your parade kit? In the doing it was all mud and luck.”

            After some glances a grizzled veteran made himself spokesman. “We knows that, Lady Knight Commander sir. But you still got the littles back, and you got the mage what was killin’ us.”

            She found herself thinking rapidly and clearly. “Lady Kel’s fine, soldier, unless some stickler’s around. Lord Raoul trained me and I don’t stand on ceremony.” The lord of Goldenlake’s dislike of noble pomp was widely known and grins flickered. “But yes, we got the littles back, and by the gods’ grace we got the mage and the Kinslayer. A nightmare and his dog, sent where they belonged. But I’ll tell you something.”

            They leaned in, intent on her.

            “That mage was a pimply mouse of a man. He killed hundreds and hurt us all, but to me he was the Nothing Man. Stenmun Kinslayer was evil right through. He liked to have men skinned and stole children for gold, but he wasn’t a coward. The mage was and I’ve been hoping the Black God’s judges have been thinking about that. But what matters is that he was more an illusion than anything else.”

            The soldier frowned. “Them killin’ devices was real , Lady Kel.”           

            “Yes, they were. But though they scared the wits out of us all and could chop up anyone in range, one good crossbow-bolt in the dome and they were done. You can’t do that to a giant or the kraken. What I’m saying is their weapon was more their terror than their knives. When all’s said and done they were dead children who just wanted to stop hurting. And once you got through that, there was only a greasy fool with bad breath and spots who got his head cut off by a girl.”

            There was a second’s silence followed by a roar of laughter and when Kel walked straight at them they parted easily, grinning among themselves. Owen fell in behind, chortling admiringly and reminding her Master Numair wanted to talk before he peeled off for the command building and left Kel to make her way to the guest quarters. She found Numair reading, long legs stretched out and half-unpacked saddlebags piled on the bed. Seeing he was oblivious she rapped gently on the door.

            “You wanted to see me, Master Numair?”

            “Keladry, come in.” He folded away papers and stood, inspecting her gravely. “I heard you were wounded. How are you now?”

            “Much improved, thank you.”

            “Good. And my heartfelt thanks for killing Blayce. Jonathan described what he’d seen in your vision—that sounds so odd—and it was everything I’d feared. Gods! What a horror necromancy is. Please, sit.”

            When she had settled he regarded her curiously. “It’s the behaviour of the Chamber that has the King exercised, of course, and this girl Irnai. I must meet her, but for now would you just tell me, please, about everything you’ve experienced with that elemental. Oh, except your Ordeal, of course.”

            “Alright.” She hesitated, delaying. “I don’t really understand what elementals are.”

            He thought for a moment. “I think the best description is that they’re organised wild magic. But how organised is … variable. Some are older than most gods and very complex beings indeed, like Chitral, who made the Dominion Jewel and chose to give it to Alanna. Others aren’t much more than emergent patterns.” He frowned. “I had believed our Chamber was somewhere in the middle but given what it’s been up to I begin to think it’s of the older, more complex kind. And plainly in contact with the Great Gods, as Chitral must have been, which complicates everything, always. But tell me your story, please.”

            Reluctantly she began. Despite knowing they’d been only nightmare visions she found it shockingly hard to expose the deep fears the Chamber always found to trade on, but she trusted Master Numair and tried conscientiously to include all her experiences of touching the chamber-door. He was interested in the first occasion she’d thought it had spoken to her, breathing amusement at her repeated self-testing, and seemed especially struck by her haunting experience after Joren’s trial, and how the Chamber had worked her feelings about Lalasa’s legal vulnerability into a scenario whose terror was as much political as visceral. She ended with her repeated dreams of Blayce’s workshop and what she’d seen and heard at Rathhausak, including the Chamber’s grumpiness over her dislike of the name it had given her and her belief it had been teasing her in choosing where it stopped its spectacular display during her debriefing. Numair grinned.

            “You’re probably right. Alanna certainly thinks Chitral has a warped sense of humour. I tend to find that more reassuring than upsetting, though many wouldn’t. Still, that’s some story of yours.” He pondered. “Do other squires touch its door as you did?”

            “I always thought so. There was a lot of joshing among pages about the tradition that says it’s bad luck if they do, and what I thought was an unspoken expectation that once one became a squire, one should. But when I told Neal he said I was mad and no-one else did.”

            “Mmm. So probably some do, but if the experiences are typically as they were for you, deep fears forcibly played out, those people would not say anything much afterwards.”

            She nodded, pleased that he understood. “That’s what I decided. It must be the same sort of thing for everyone—friends and family being killed, being helpless to stop it—and I certainly didn’t want to talk about it to anyone.”

            “I’m sure you didn’t. But it sounds as if your, um, persistence is unusual and the Chamber did, perhaps as a result, take special notice. So I’m afraid I must ask why you kept having it subject you to nightmares?”

            She stared at him, then shrugged. “Don’t you want to have a feel for a mage you’re going to have to fight?”

            “Fair enough. Was it only that?”

            “Well, no.” She thought about it, and amid new things crowding her head realised something. “You have to understand, Master Numair, I faced a lot of disapproval. Even before I started as a page, in my own family, harsh things were said. Once I was at the palace there was Lord Wyldon’s probation and open dislike, as well as Joren and his gang. And when we started serving at banquets there were court ladies, and guests who refused to have me serve them, or sniffed and said I should be ashamed of myself, not for doing anything wrong but just because I was a girl.” The memories were vivid. “The only thing I had to set against all that was that the Chamber alone bestows knighthood and it passed women until a century back, as well as Sir Alanna.” She took a deep breath. “I wanted to touch the door as soon as I became a page but I knew of the tradition from my brothers and respected it. But once I was a squire nothing would have stopped me. If the Chamber thought I wasn’t worthy I had to know.”

            The mage was regarding her with a compassionate look that made her want to cry, and she stilled herself.

            “That makes good sense, Keladry. And I’m sorry you had such a miserable time with bigots. Believe me, I understand that.” Thin fingers tapped. “But it’s clear the Chamber chose you for exactly the reasons you’ve done so astoundingly well. The problem is that it’s still not clear when it chose you and Jon seems to feel he needs to know.”

            “Then why doesn’t he ask?”

            “Eh? Ask what?”

            “The Chamber.” Numair gaped and a thought crystallised. “I just realised that when I was reporting to him and the others, they thought re-entering the Chamber was like undergoing another Ordeal. When it spoke through Irnai they all went white, as if they were being tested.”

            Numair had caught up and was nodding. “Because they’ve only ever had contact with the elemental during their Ordeals.”

            “Yes. But talking to it isn’t like that at all and its whole purpose is to serve Tortall. If the King’s truly worried about what it’s doing I can’t believe it wouldn’t speak to him about it. And there’d be no point in it giving him another Ordeal anyway—he passed its test years ago. So he should just go inside it and ask.”

            Slowly Numair smiled. “I shall tell him so, Keladry. His reply should be entertaining. And perhaps I’ll ask it myself about Shakith.”

            “And Lord Gainel, it said.”

            He grinned. “Yes, but I’ve met Gainel myself at my in-laws’.” Kel was well repaid for leaving him nonplussed a minute before and he chuckled at her expression. “I know. I still don’t always believe it myself but it comes with my Godborn magelet, bless her. She should be here tomorrow, by the way.”

            “So Owen said. I was hoping to see her. She’s always been so kind to me.” Numair beamed. She wondered if Owen shouldn’t have mentioned it, but curiosity won. “Is she really negotiating with a spidren?”

            He didn’t seem surprised she knew and nodded. “She is. It contacted her father at Samradh, when the barriers are thin, and he sent the Badger to convey its message.” Kel looked a query. “The male badger god. He’s a friend of Daine’s and Weiryn’s.”

            “Oh.” She blinked away surprise at how intimate he seemed with all manner of gods. “I meant, what was the message?”

            “So far as we can tell, that it wants to make a treaty, as we do with other immortals, and have someplace safe to live. Otherwise we know only that its name is Quenuresh, that it leads a small family group and must be a mage of some degree, and that Weiryn says it’s very old for its kind, though as it’s an immortal what that means is itself a mystery.”

            “There are spidren mages?” Kel was horrified.

            “A few. Their webs are intrinsically magical and that’s usually it, thank Mithros, but not always.”

            “Are you worried it’s a trap?”

            He shook his head. “No more than usual. Daine can defend herself against most things, she has an army escort, and the Badger promised to be there. It’s more than she often has.” He sighed and stood, bringing Kel to her feet. “Can you take me to meet Irnai now?”

            “Of course.”

            Passing her own room Kel stopped in to leave Orchan of Eridui, and found Tobe feeding sparrows. On his advice she and Master Numair then headed for the cookhouse, where as promised Irnai was helping to peel vegetables and listening to cooks’ gossip. Besides the innate attraction of food for a child who’d gone hungry for months, Kel had noticed on their journey that Irnai sought out mundane tasks, and thought it was probably a combination of repeatedly having to win acceptance from strangers and needing something more regular in her life than splinters of divine vision. She cheerfully came and sat with them at an empty table, holding Kel’s hand and answering questions straightforwardly, but to Kel’s mind there was nothing useful they didn’t already know. The only surprising thing was that while Irnai remembered all the Chamber had said, and even with eyes closed had seen the visions it projected through her, she had no memory of the words she’d spoken as Shakith gripped her and refused to hear what they were.

            “The god told me if I don’t remember what I’ve said it’s best I don’t know. It won’t affect me, and it’s for others to worry about.”

            Accepting this, Numair asked a few more questions about reactions to her prophecies, and let her return to the vegetables. Back outside he complimented Kel warmly on her care of the girl and all the children, before remarking with a frown that the stronger seers were the harder it was to tell anything, but he thought Irnai’s connection with Shakith unusually direct and suspected the goddess was actually trying to be helpful, which might or might not be a good thing. By the end his voice had sunk to a murmur and abruptly bidding Kel farewell until the feast in her honour he stalked off, still muttering. Kel was left to contemplate the further embarrassment in store and the need to dress for it.

            In the event it wasn’t as nerve-racking as she’d feared. She had no gown (and wasn’t sure, after Haven’s destruction, what if any clothes she had left) so a thorough wash and clean tunic had to serve. To her pleasure Fanche and Saefas were seated at the high table too, with a beaming Tobe; the messhall below was packed to the rafters with refugees, including children and Scanran villagers, as well as hundreds of soldiers. Seaver’s boar proved tender, the vegetables fresh, and the sweets an indulgence leaving her delightfully sated. The only bad moment came when Wyldon ended his remarks following the royal toast by proposing a further toast to their collective valour and she realised she was expected to reply—but even that proved easier than her first address at Haven as commander, and once on her feet she knew what she wanted to say. Carefully smoothing her Mindelan tunic she let her gaze circle, collecting fierce attention.

            “My Lord of Cavall is right to say all of us singled out for honour here depended on one another, and I would express my deep gratitude to my friends, and to Sergeants Domitan and Connac and all the soldiers with us, without whom none of it would have been possible. But we all depended also on the men and women of Haven, who did much to rescue themselves, on the villagers of Rathhausak, and in full measure on the children, who endured without complaint more than anyone should ever have to suffer, and showed the greatest courage you can imagine. There were others I cannot name, too, who helped along our way. So my first toast is to all who helped, not just we who are praised.”

            They drank, cheering, and when she remained standing quieted.

            “And there are our dead, at Haven and beyond.” The mood sobered. “I think of the captive adults who did all they could to slow the enemy’s progress and paid with their lives. Of our comrades and animals who fell at Rathhausak, giving their lives that others might live. And of the many children and adults who died at Blayce’s hands, given by their liegelord to a human monster. So in the names of Lord Mithros, and the Goddess, and the Black God, I give you our dead, in honoured memory.” She gestured and they stood. “May our lives be worthy of them, in winning this war and in the peace to follow.”

            “So mote it be.”

            The unison was thunderous, and she sat to murmurs of approval from her friends and a look from Wyldon that made her feel distinctly strange. Since their peculiar conversation they’d met only in public and their boundaries of friendship remained uncertain, but Kel had found a happiness she couldn’t recall growing in her as she absorbed the fact of his admiration for her as knight and commander. As the weight of his disapproval had haunted her training, so the glow of his regard warmed her as she struggled to come to terms with success and burgeoning fame. It was a vast improvement. Aided by the glass of wine she had to drink with the toasts she slept that night more deeply and dreamlessly than at any time since her Ordeal and first vision of pimpled slaughter.

 

* * * * *

 

Two days later a beautiful June morning found Kel riding a lively Peachblossom on the familiar courier track towards Haven, Jump in his carry-box and sparrows flitting to-and-fro. Numair rode behind her on the long-suffering Spots, as badly as ever, with Daine on a borrowed horse and behind them the young but assured leader of the western building team, sent from Steadfast to advise. More surprisingly, Daine had Kitten with her, the dragonet having become so bored with her parents’ repeated absence from Corus, and so advanced in magic for her age, that Daine felt it riskier to leave her behind than to expose her to hazard in the north. She perched on Daine’s horse’s withers, peering alertly and occasionally trilling excitement. Soldiers had point and rearguard and a screen surrounded them, but the mages were their defence should they meet any genuine force that had escaped detection.

            Starting at dawn and riding hard despite Numair’s complaints they came by late morning to the last ridge before the Greenwoods valley. Here towards its southern end the western hills were rounded and well wooded, criss-crossed with animal trails. The track bent sharply before curling into a gulley and running through trees down to the river, which it accompanied north to Haven; approaching that bend Kel pulled up.

            “If no-one objects I’d like to get a view over the whole valley before anything else.”

            No-one did and the building officer, Geraint of Legann, nodded approval. After letting horses breathe and scouts re-orient themselves Kel led them onto a deertrack angling up the hill. Steady climbing and a scramble where the slope steepened brought them to the crown of the hill, where they dismounted. Then she led them cautiously through the trees, sparrows scouting ahead, and after a few minutes came to the position she remembered, above crags with the sunlit valley spread out below them. As the others emerged from the trees to stand beside her, exclaiming at the view, Kel folded herself to sit cross-legged, back against warm tree-bark and one hand absently tugging Jump’s ears in the way he loved. Daine sat beside her, Kitten scrambling into her lap, and the others followed suit, Master Numair letting long legs dangle over the crags and Geraint producing a notebook in which he began to sketch.

            To their left the broadening valley descended north-east towards the distant Vassa, until the Greenwoods bent north to skirt intruding, higher hills beyond which lay Tirrsmont, the ruins of Goatstrack, and ill-fated Giantkiller. About three miles from their lookout the blackened rectangle of Haven perched on its artificial knoll above the river, bare flagpole and air of desertion a stark reminder of why they were here. Surrounding it was the best cropland, in the rich valley bottom and on the lower slopes; more good growing and grazing lay immediately below, limited by sheer cliffs on the eastern side, culminating in an outlying root the Grimhold Mountains thrust through the lower hills.

             It was this Kel had really wanted to see, and after a general survey though the splendid spyglass Alanna had given her she settled to a careful quartering of the ground. Why the limestone steepened so much on the east she had no idea, but the great fin of darker rock that all but cut off the southernmost third of the valley was another matter altogether. It ended well out on the valley floor in a ragged cliff thirty foot high, leaving a half-mile of open ground bisected by the river foaming down a stretch of rapids, but where the fin cut the eastern cliffs, themselves rising more than four hundred feet, it towered above them. Compared to its base and even to the limestone cliffs, which for nearly a mile to the north rose like a wall from the rich soil, the slope up to the angle of fin and cliffs seemed oddly shallow—because, as Kel half-remembered and her spyglass confirmed, it was filled with an immense screepile. Straggling shrubs made it hard to be sure but she thought the loose stone extended onto the valley floor for a hundred-and-fifty yards or more, and rose at least two hundred feet before tapering to meet the intersecting cliffs. A wide, ragged chimney in the paler limestone and a deep notch in the clifftop above showed where the debris had come from. More importantly, denser vegetation with damp ground below told of a spring beneath the scree and from this height Kel could see a line of greener growth tracing a course towards the Greenwoods. Thoughtfully she let the spyglass drop from her eye and took in the wider view again, letting her hand drift back to Jump’s head.

            May I look though it, please?

            Startled, she turned her head to meet Kitten’s slit-pupilled eyes. Behind the dragonet Daine seemed amused.

            “Did she talk to you? I expect she wants to use the spyglass.”

            Swallowing surprise, Kel offered Kitten the brass tube. “Of course you can, ah—”

            Skysong is my true name, but I don’t mind if you call me Kitten, as Mama does.

            “Skysong. Right, I knew that. I’m sorry I forgot. Please be careful with the glass.”

            I will. Thank you. What should I call you?

            “Um, Keladry. Or Kel’s fine.”

            Thank you, Kel.

            The dragonet set the spyglass gently to her eye, whistling pleasure, and seeing that she clearly knew how to twist the eyepiece to focus Kel let her eyes meet Daine’s, alight with laughter.

            “When did this happen? She couldn’t talk before, could she?”

            “Well, she could, actually, but not to us two-leggers. She was too young, so far as we knew, to mindspeak between the kinds as adult dragons do, and fair frustrating we all found it.” The Wildmage grinned at the memory. “But when we were in Carthak for Kalassin’s wedding she found Kawit, who gave her one of her scales to eat, and Kit’s been chattering non-stop ever since, making up for lost time. She still finds it hard to speak to more than one two-legger at once, though, so others won’t necessarily hear what you do. It can make conversations a bit awkward.” A chirp told them the dragonet was listening and Daine reached to stroke her flank. “I know, Kit, but you’re doing very well.” Her smoky blue-grey eyes came back to Kel’s. “She’s cautious with strangers, having discovered the hard way that not everyone likes a talking and very inquisitive dragon, so she must trust you.”

            “Oh.” Kel felt absurdly pleased. “Perhaps she remembers me from the palace. I did meet her once, when I first brought you Jump.” Hearing his name the dog thumped his tail.

            Yes, I remember. You knelt to greet me. I always remember kindness. Kitten took the spyglass from her eye and swivelled her snout to look up at Kel. What were you looking at so carefully?

            “I was wondering if we might be able to use the angle of the cliffs and that great fin. It would mean we’d only have two walls to defend.”

            The fallen rocks are in the way.

            “They could be moved.” Kel shrugged. “I don’t really know what’s possible, but I’ve seen Master Numair shift tons of boulders at once, and I was wondering what’s under those rocks. Do you see the greener vegetation leading to the river? There’s a spring in there, and above the scree the cliffs rise sheer, so perhaps they’re like that right along.”

            Kitten chirped and took up the spyglass, peering at screeslope and the cliffs to either side before again looking at Kel.

            The black cliff is very strong rock, so that is probably right. She sounded thoughtful. There is a dragonspell that would tell me what is hidden under the fall, but I could not cast it powerfully enough for a pile of rocks that big.

            Daine heard this and looked at Kitten consideringly. “You’re always good with rocks, Kit. Numair might be able to boost you. Tell him about the spell you mean?”

            With a cluck of agreement the dragonet carefully handed the spyglass back to Kel and trotted over to Numair, whistling and tugging at his sleeve. He listened carefully before glancing across at Kel.

            “She says you want to know what’s under all that scree?”

            Kel nodded. “I wondered if the cliffs were sheer all the way down, Master Numair. I may be dreaming the impossible, but if they are, and that scree pile could be shifted forward and levelled out …”

            “Mmm.” His eyes lost focus for a minute. “There’s no problem moving the rocks, but I don’t think they’d be stable enough to build on.”

            “Can we look anyway? I realise you could raise another knoll, as before, but I want to keep as much good land as possible for planting. So do the refugees. We need all the food we can grow. And if we were backed against the cliffs we’d only have two sides to defend.”

            Beyond Numair Geraint nodded. “I like your thinking, my Lady, but Master Numair is right. Loose scree like that can be used as filler, or for a glacis, say, but it won’t take post-holes or foundations.”

            Kitten again tugged at Numair’s sleeve, and a look of surprise crossed his face.

            “That’s true, Kit. Good thinking.” He glanced at Geraint, then looked round at Kel. “She reminds me basilisks can do all sorts of things with stone—it’s their native element—and as it happens Tkaa isn’t far away.”

            “He isn’t?” The basilisk courtier-diplomat had taught Kel as a page, and if having a seven-foot-tall beaded lizard as a teacher had been unnerving at first she’d grown very fond of him. His lessons about the many kinds of immortal had always been interesting and often valuable, but she’d loved his complete indifference to her gender.

            “He’s visiting a basilisk mother-and-son living south of here, near Wolfwood, who’ve been finding some locals suspicious and hostile.”

            “Oh.” She felt a pang for the unknown mother-and-son—or perhaps not unknown. “I might have met those basilisks, once, when I was riding with the Own. Did they use to live in the Royal Forest?”

            “Yes, that’s them. They’ve been all over northern Tortall since then. The mother’s St’aara and her son is Amiir’aan.” Kitten chirped what sounded like a correction and Numair smiled. “Of course Kitten can pronounce their full names properly and delights in doing so at great length, but even knowing Old Thak I can never get the gutturals of the spoken form right, so I stick to the short versions.” He pulled himself back from the crag edge and stood. “I’ve no idea if your idea is practical, Keladry, but we can certainly look.”

            It didn’t take them long to descend back to the courier trail and canter down to the valley floor. A mile below the rapids the river shallowed and broadened as it ran over a shelf of rock covered in sand, making a perfect ford. From his snorts Kel knew Peachblossom was enjoying the rush of cool mountain water against cannonbones and knees, and the valley looked beautiful in the sunlight, but the shell of Haven to the north prevented her relaxing. Reaching the further bank she let Peachblossom stretch his legs in a brief gallop that brought her to the foot of the scree, and dismounted.

            Before trying any spellwork they broke out food and Geraint built a small fire, setting water to boil. The Mastiff cooks had provided rolls, cheese, and cold meat, and despite dark Haven in the distance Kel felt her spirits rise. She pulled herself onto a small boulder at the edge of the scree, looking down-valley and letting legs dangle while she shared a roll with the sparrows and meat with Jump. This would be a good corner of the valley to dwell if her strange idea worked out; the towering fin would limit direct light, especially when the northern sun made only winter arches, but now, Samradh a week past, the shadow was pleasantly cool and the Greenwoods sparkled.

            Bringing a cup of strong soldiers’ tea Geraint sat beside her, smiling when a sparrow landed on his shoulder. His voice was soft.

            “Lady Knight, wherever we build we’re going to need to use as much timber from Haven as we can. I’m sorry.” She nodded bleakly, having known the remains of her first command would have to be dismantled. “With your permission I’ll take a couple of men and survey it. The fire-damage doesn’t look as bad as I’d feared.”

            There was a question in his voice and Kel nodded again, eyes on Haven. “Master Numair had strong fire-protections on everything except the infirmary. And the Scanrans wanted to capture, not kill.” She shifted to face him, drawing one leg up. “Master Geraint, the dead who fell there are buried in a mass-grave by the flagpole. There was no time for more, and I will not move them. Rather, we will make Haven our burial-ground. I know we need the timber, but please make sure everyone knows to respect that ground.”

            “Of course, my Lady. We will honour them.”

            A thought struck her forcibly. “I don’t know what if anything survived inside any of the barracks—not much, from what I saw—but though the headquarters building was ransacked it wasn’t torched in the same way.” She flushed slightly. “My own room was there …”

            “And you need your things. I understand, my Lady.”

            “Most of it can wait, Geraint, but I am going to need some clothing. Perhaps I should come with you.”

            “Please don’t. I can get what’s needed and it won’t affect me the same way.” Gently dislodging the sparrow he slid to his feet, turned, and to her surprise offered a salute. “Permission to go, my Lady?”

            “Yes, carry on, Geraint. You’ll have a good view from the knoll, so make sure someone keeps watch and has a horn.”

            “Right.”

            He walked off, calling soldiers, and Kel slid off the boulder, looking round. Kitten had scrambled almost to the top of the scree pile, followed more cautiously by Master Numair, obviously concerned about its stability; black fire glittered at his fingertips in case he found the ground moving under his feet. As Kel gazed at them Daine came to stand beside her.

            “If Kitten’s going to do what I think this might be very pretty.”

            “Pretty?” Kel quirked an eyebrow. “What happens?”

            “The rocks light up. She learned the basic spell years ago, when we first met Tkaa in Dunlath, and she’s always loved it.” A smile warmed her face. “At the siege of Port Legann she was showing off to Diamondflame and made the battlement light up, all in different colours. It’s—what’s that word Numair uses—all up and down, like rotten teeth.” Her hand traced a pattern in the air.

            “Crenellated?”

            “That’s the one. Kitten made the teeth-bits light up. The ones that stick up.”

            “Merlons.”

            “If you say so.” She grinned. “It was fair wonderful, but Lord Imrah was already having to walk round an invisible eighty-foot dragon on his keep roof and I don’t think he wanted colourful merlons just then.”

            Kel’s smile tipped into a laugh. She suspected she might have shared Lord Imrah’s misgivings, but still. “An eighty-foot dragon?”

            “About that.” Daine’s glance was amused. “Diamondflame’s the strongest dragon, magically, but not the biggest. At the Dragonmeet there was one at least one-hundred-and-twenty feet, nose to rump.”

            Kel stared. “You went to a dragonmeet?”

            “The Dragonmeet.” Daine’s eyes were on Numair and Kitten, crouched in conference. “It’s a … well, legal body, I suppose, like a court. Someone didn’t like mortals in the Dragonlands and tried to get us kicked out but Diamondflame and Rainbow put a stop to that.” Her voice was absent. “Here we go.”

            Kel swallowed curiosity and looked up. Balancing carefully on a boulder thirty feet below the top of the scree, Numair hoisted Kitten to stand on his shoulders, one long arm reaching up to rest on the back of her head, where black-and-silver magic sparkled as Kitten gave a piercing whistle. As Daine had predicted the scree above them blazed in response and Kitten chortled. She whistled again, a lower note, and the dark rock of the fin glowed a strange blue; a third note made the limestone cliffs glow a lighter greeny-blue that reminded Kel of water. Then mage and dragonet began a more systematic lightshow, probing the scree and slowly descending in sweeps, colours flaring before them.

            Tearing her eyes away Kel saw the soldiers who hadn’t gone with Geraint edging back, faces strained. Even Jump and the horses were keeping their distance, though sparrows fluttered about the scree, peeping excitedly. She considered offering the soldiers a reassuring word, but it would make no difference to their fear of the black-robe mage. She’d seen it in poor Einur the cook at Haven, and even in the Riders and Own, where Daine was always welcome, Master Numair was treated with wary caution. The man had, after all, once turned an enemy mage into a tree—a story she’d barely believed when Neal first told it, but had since heard confirmed though she’d never seen the tree itself, somewhere at Dunlath. That name sparked an idea but before she could pursue it she realised that even in her mind she always called Master Numair by his title, though she thought of the Godborn Wildmage at her side just as Daine. Wasn’t that her own way of keeping him at a safe distance, even after all he’d done for Haven? And he always called her Keladry, never the diminutive. A resolution formed.

            “Daine, why does Numair never call me Kel?”

            Daine glanced at her, eyebrows raised. “You always call him by his title. Etiquette bores him but he likes you so he offers respect. Why?”

            “I’ve had cause to think about things like that recently. But I just realised I always call him ‘Master Numair’ for the same reason those soldiers are looking so wary. It’s not fair on him.”

            The Wildmage’s smile was warm. “No, it isn’t. He’s philosophical about it and says he can’t expect anything else. But I remember at the siege of Pirate’s Swoop, when I’d just come to Tortall, how the stable-hands and servants who’d seemed to like me went all stiff-legged after I healed Kit’s ma and summoned the Kraken, though it saved us all. It still happens, if villagers see me change.” She shrugged. “I don’t blame them but it’s hard.” Smokey eyes gave Kel a shrewd look. “Are you finding the same, as Protector of the Small?”

            “You’ve heard that silly name?”

            “Kel, everyone’s heard it, up here anyway, and I don’t suppose Corus missed out.” Daine grinned. “I’d get used to it. And anyway, it suits you.”

            “So the King said.” Kel knew she sounded grumpy, and Daine grinned again. “But no, it’s not really the same. The men aren’t afraid of me, and they know I haven’t a drop of magic. But they look at me differently and I can feel the weight of expectation, as if I’m going to do something extraordinary any moment.”

            “Yes, that’s it.” Daine’s eyes were back on Numair and Kitten, working round the dampness by the limestone cliff. “As if I might suddenly turn wolf just to scare them. One reason I like Dunlath is no-one much cares anymore what I do. They see ogres and wolves and eagles in the castle whenever Maura’s Council meets so what’s a shapeshifter more or less?”

            Kel’s elusive thought returned and she grabbed it, exploring it as it unfolded. A dozen ideas popped into her head, some making her wonder if she were mad after all, but Numair was now climbing back down towards them, Kitten still riding his shoulders.

            “Daine, there’s no time now but when we’ve a chance there’s something complicated I want to ask you.”

            Daine looked at her curiously. “About what?”

            “Dunlath, sort of.”

            “Alright.”

            Numair came off the scree, face sheened with sweat, and swung Kitten down. Sparrows fluttered before perching where they could.

            “There you are, monster. Happy now?”

            Kit chortled, hugging Numair’s leg, then chirped at Daine, who smiled. “He spoils you rotten, Kit. You could perfectly well have climbed down yourself. But yes, that was all very pretty and I do think your grandsire would be impressed. The sparrows certainly were and say thank you. What did you learn? Can you tell Kel at the same time?”

            I can. There was a strain in the dragonet’s happy mindvoice, but it was clear. The rocks are tightly packed and there are lots of them but I felt the cliffs behind. Both drop straight down to the ground, and in the white rock, where it meets the black rock, there is a cave. It is partly filled with rocks that have tumbled in, but I think it is big. And the water all comes from one place in the white rock, about forty feet above the ground. The flow is quite strong but much seeps straight down and disappears again. Only what the rocks divert forms the underground flow you saw from the crags where we stopped.

            Kel’s fist clenched. “Excellent. Thank you, Skysong, that’s very helpful. I don’t know about your grandsire, never having met him, but I’m impressed.”

            Kitten preened and Kel grabbed a stick and scuffed some ground clear. They leaned in to see as she squatted and drew crude lines to represent limestone and fin, then two enclosing walls.

            “I’m no artist, but what I’m thinking is that we move all the scree, so the base of the angle is clear, and pile it up further out.” She switched to a profile view, dragging the stick quickly through the soft dirt. “So around the base and this cavemouth you’d have a space at ground level, then a slope up to a much bigger level area. I’m not sure how high that slope could be, but I’ve tried to calculate the volume of this scree-pile, and my first guess is thirty feet or so. That would be the main level, with the barracks, stables, infirmary and so on. And around that, a raised rim, as sheer as you can make it outside. I’m guessing again, but I think if we did it like that, and you can magically revet it so it’s stable, we might be able to get an outside face of fifty foot, all hard climbing at best—and there’d be the palisade on top of that. Plus from what Kitten says about that spring, we could have an internal water-source and channel what we don’t need along the cliff to the outer wall, down, and back along below it before heading for the river.” She looked up at them triumphantly. “A moat, then a fifty-foot scramble with traps and obstacles, and then fifteen- and thirty-foot double walls enclosing a killing field. Let the Scanrans try to climb that.”

            Kitten chortled, nodding, and Daine smiled, but Numair had a bemused look.

            “You don’t think small, do you, Keladry? You’re describing a better fortress than Northwatch.”

            “Just Kel, please.” She stood, dusting her hands as he gave her a sharp look. “And no, not any more. I realise it’s not being made public, but you know what Irnai prophesied, so I’m expecting to have to defend whatever we build here. Mithros knows against what sort of force, but I have to assume the worst. So I’d want a gatehouse there”—she pointed with her foot—“hard against the fin, and the only approach a road sloping up across the west face of the glacis, right under the walls.”

            She looked Numair in the eye. “You have to understand that while Wyldon’s giving me a regular company as well as the squads from Haven, I’ll still be relying on refugees to man the walls. Giantkiller will screen us, but if Maggur puts together a real force—and he’s been dealing in armies of several thousand this year—he can besiege Giantkiller and Mastiff with five hundred men apiece and send everything else at us. And if that happens there will be no way I can fight them in the field, whatever Wyldon thinks. So I shall have to fort up and defy them, for however long it takes for relief to arrive, which might be a week or more. And that means that to stand any chance I have to repel repeated assaults, and bleed the enemy hard. I’m sorry to be blunt, but that’s the logic. And I’m not letting my people be hung out to dry again.”

            She gestured towards the shell of Haven, noticing as she did so distant figures—Geraint and soldiers—trotting back towards them.

            “You know it. All those refugees, all those children, left in harm’s way while lords bickered, and harm came calling. And here we are again, facing exactly the same problem, for all that Blayce is dead. So I want a fort that cannot fall while its defenders stay true.”

            Numair nodded sharply. “Right on all counts. I spoke again to Jonathan about these risks but he can’t overrule the lords on their own lands without risking real trouble for the realm.” He sighed. “It depends on stabilising the scree, Kel.” She noted she hadn’t had to ask him twice. “Harailt and I can move and shape it, but fixing it to give the kind of slopes you want and support those walls and buildings for, what? a thousand people or more—that’s another matter.”

            But Tkaa can make any stones stick together.

            Numair frowned. “Using heat, you mean, Kit?”

            No, they just stuck. And if you packed the stones with mud he could use the rock-spell. Would that not hold everything together?

            “The rock-spell? What’s that?”

            Numair’s eyes were losing focus and Daine answered Kel’s question.

            “It turns things to stone—a basilisk’s main hunting and defence spell.” Her voice was wry. “Sounds like an avalanche with a lot of shrieking thrown in, but it works. Tkaa used it to save me from a coldfang once, and against attacking hurroks at Port Legann.”

            “Oh.” Kel thought furiously. “Is it a blasting spell, or can it be used … I don’t know, more delicately?”

            “Surely. Last time I met St’aara she said she’d had some luck turning wooden bowls and jars into stone, for villagers over by the Drell somewhere who’d lost their stonecarver. What are you thinking?”

            “I’m not sure.” But her visions now included fireproof roofs, and neither the palisades above a formidable glacis nor the spikes lining pits below magetraps were still made of vulnerable wood.

            Numair’s focus returned. “I don’t know if Kitten’s right, but I can contact Tkaa tonight and ask what’s possible.” He smiled with a certain grimness. “I don’t think it’s what the army had in mind, nor yet Jonathan, but it makes sense to me, Kel, and we’ll do our best.”

            “Thank you, Numair.” She met his eyes again. “For everything.” She let her gaze drop to Kitten and remembering the dragonet’s words went to one knee. “Thank you too, Skysong. You’ve been a well of ideas today. If it all works out we should give you the freedom of—well, I don’t know what we’re going to call it. New Haven, maybe. Or New Hope.”

            The dragonet went pink. I like New Hope. That is always good.

            “It is. The refugees have a say but I think they’ll like it too.”

            Kitten chirped agreement and behind her Kel heard Geraint arrive. Rising, she steeled herself to hear his assessment of what could be salvaged from Haven. It would always be a nightmare memory but her raw determination to prevent another such fall had become laced with optimism. The implications of Irnai’s prophecy frightened her badly, but if New Hope could shelter behind the walls she envisaged it would not be her people with whom stormwings would play. Let whoever brought the war to them pay that price.

 

* * * * *

 

Wyldon took some convincing that Kel’s idea was feasible, but Geraint had been willing, if bemused, and after talking to Tkaa Numair was firm there was a good enough chance to warrant trying.

            “Both basilisks say sticking loose stone is simple,” he reported, “and they can make the bond as strong as they want. Tkaa’s intrigued, I think. St’aara said she’d offered help with stonework before, trying to earn a place to stay, but villagers have always been too frightened and quarrymen hostile. This could be an opportunity in more ways than one.”

            Wyldon didn’t seem much happier but Kel was definite on that point. On their ride back to Mastiff she’d been able to ask Daine about Dunlath, and how agreement had been reached with ogres to live peacefully with people and animals. War had taught Kel vividly how much trouble a single giant could make on a battlefield, how deadly centaurs were with arrows and how profoundly intimidating adult griffins, and that most immortals who made treaties kept them honourably. But she also knew that though the army made no provision to house or feed them, some of those living under treaty had been displaced by the war, while others had found nowhere to settle or preferred wandering. And if the most the realm could find to defend her refugees was a scant company of men she needed to make whatever allies she could.

            That was the point she made to Wyldon, less bluntly and with subtle stress on the genuine difficulties in staffing she knew he faced—winning a wry nod. To Daine on the trail she’d emphasised her determination to be honest with all comers, telling them frankly she expected New Hope to have to fight against hard odds before the war was done but also her belief that if immortals would try to fit in, she thought they could .

            “We’ve an advantage in that everyone’s a refugee and used to getting along with whoever’s there. We’ve also been shown the hard way what can happen in war, how vulnerable we are. We’re taking Scanrans from Rathhausak and if anyone’s objected Fanche and Saefas have set them right so fast I’ve not heard of it. The Haven refugees have actually been helping them get acquainted with the dogs and cats and birds you magicked before, though a couple of the older ones still mutter about wine besten duguth being unnatural.”

            Daine had laughed. “Yes, I’ve heard that from other Scanrans. ‘Friendly animal retainers’, I suppose you’d say. But they don’t mind the People’s help when they need it.”

            “No. And the Rathhausakers are used to Zerhalm. He’s got animal healing magic, thank the Goddess, or we’d have lost that marmalade cat who was so helpful.” She told Daine about the cat’s bravery and concussion fighting Stenmun. “She’s taken up residence with Fanche and Saefas since Dom left, and behaves like a queen, of course. Well, how you’d think a queen would behave, not like Thayet.” Daine had laughed at that. “But getting back to the point, though frankly I don’t like this side of it at all, with Irnai’s tale circulating and the idea the gods were with us against death magic, they’ve also got the idea we have a special blessing. And like it or not, I can use that if anyone objects to a basilisk or an ogre. I’ve also been wondering about that griffin kit, and if his parents might be willing to take up residence.”

            Then she’d taken a deep breath and made an offer she hoped she wouldn’t regret. “I’m not sure about that spidren, Quenuresh, and her kin, though. I’m sorry, Daine—I don’t know if I could stick a spidren at close quarters. I’ve fought them so often and seen what they do to people they capture. But there’s a patch of dense old woodland north of Haven, that spidrens have used before, and if you’re sure Quenuresh means what she says and will honour a treaty, I think we could co-exist. For me it’s enough if they’ll leave people alone and defend their territory against any hostiles.” Her fighting brain prompted an addition. “And if they want more, I don’t mind trading though I’m not sure what. Meat for webbing, or whatever Quenuresh’s magecraft lets her do.”

            Daine had ridden in silence for a while. Kel suspected she was talking to Kitten, who’d listened carefully and was now twisted round to look at Daine, but if so their conversation was strictly between themselves until the Wildmage suddenly nodded and looked at her.

            “Alright, Kel, I’ll try. There’s not a lot of people I’d trust to say they’ll protect peaceful immortals against upset two-leggers and actually deliver, but you’re surely one. Kit thinks so too. And I’ve been feeling wretched about immortal refugees. Maggur probably makes the same offer to ogres and centaurs he makes to giants, but giants like fighting. Most ogres in the mortal realms don’t. They’re miners or farmers, and you need both. And male centaurs just want to pasture their herds in peace and do well enough to keep females happy, so I think some will consider it. The griffins might too. They’re not big on gratitude but they know they owe you a lot more than that sack of feathers, and the Vassa has big enough fish to interest them. I’m also grateful for the offer about Quenuresh. I think she’s sincere, and she said several times she knew it’d be hard to win mortals’ trust but she was sick of running and hiding and having no choice but to kill to defend herself and her kin.”

            She’d smiled wryly.

            “It’s odd, you know. They’re immortals right enough, but most spidrens die young. They probably breed and grow the fastest of any immortal, but the fight for food means the younglings kill one another as often as not, and those who do make it to adulthood end up taking too many risks and getting killed anyway. Quenuresh came north in the hope of finding space and avoiding contact with two-leggers, but ran into the war and wasn’t sure what to do. Then going south again she happened to skirt Dunlath, met an ogre who explained their treaty and how I’d been able to establish it, and came up with the idea of contacting my Da.”

            He was very surprised. Kitten’s chortle had been rich and Daine had laughed, patting the dragonet.

            “Yes, he was. So was I, come to that. But none of us could think of anywhere except Dunlath where it might work and Brokefang wouldn’t like it—he’s getting grumpier with age every time I see him. So your offer’s very welcome, and I’ll spread word as widely as I can among friendly immortals. The Badger’ll help too.”

            That had led to explanations of how Daine came to know a Badger god that left Kel wondering why anyone thought her adventures strange, but to her surprise it was that detail that convinced Wyldon to support the whole thing. He had, he said dryly, had occasion to see the Badger in action before, delivering darkings to Thayet during the Immortals War, and in any case knew better than to argue with a god of any stripe. So calculations had been made, messages sent, and plans laid, and three days after she’d got back to Mastiff Kel led out a large column, with Harailt to help Numair, Daine and Kitten, and the western building team as well as a regular company to provide guards and commissariat. To Neal’s disappointment he and the other knights had to fill gaps left in Mastiff’s rosters, with Connac’s men and Uinse’s convicts. Nor would they have any of the refugees who’d volunteered help until there were walls to sleep behind, but Tkaa and no less than three other basilisks, including St’aara and Amiir’aan, were to meet them there.

            The building team had a wagon-train loaded with tools, piping, and all manner of materials; there were also tents and food, so they had to take the longer, easier way, using the Frasrlund road and angling back to Haven from the north. Even on the wide trail the column travelled slowly and it took two days to reach the Greenwoods valley. Kel spent time getting to know the building team, a cheerful bunch, and the regulars who would be her permanent company at New Hope. She’d hesitated to ask Wyldon to make his choice so soon, but she wanted her men to see New Hope created, not least because if they knew they’d be defending its walls they’d have a commitment from the first. But he’d anticipated her, following the same logic, and she’d been surprised (if delighted) to discover there’d actually been competition among Mastiff companies to be chosen. The men selected, Company Eight under Brodhelm of Frasrlund, were proud of their assignment, and though she laced her words to them with cautions her descriptions of what she hoped to build with their help fired their enthusiasm.

            It was too late when they came to the valley to consider starting anything that night, but the basilisks were waiting as promised, and while the builders made camp in the meadow north of the fin and Brodhelm organised corralling, sentry-points, and patrol routes, Kel collected Geraint and went to make the immortals’ acquaintances. Tkaa turned from his conversation with Harailt, Daine, Numair, and Kitten to greet her in that familiar, fluting whisper, and offered congratulations on her exploit. St’aara and Amiir’aan—as endearingly shy as she remembered—seemed pleased she knew their names and recalled their brief meeting five years before; the other basilisk was a male who said his name among mortals was Var’istaan, and that he’d been living near Northwatch but had headed south when the killing devices started appearing and been wandering ever since. The tale of her actions to end the necromancy had reached him via Tkaa and made him think very well of her, so here he was. Offering polite thanks, Kel half-suspected there might be some basilisk courting going on and made a mental note to ask Tkaa about it as soon as she had an opportunity to do so discreetly.

            Then they got down to business. Kel again described what she envisaged, producing drawings that if still sketchy offered more detail than lines in earth, before Numair explained in magical terms and Geraint in engineering ones what the mortals could and couldn’t do. A whispery exchange followed in a language that sounded as if stones popped into gravel in its depths. Then Tkaa fetched five small rocks from the bottom of the scree and set them in a row, tail and one forepaw ensuring they were hard against one another. Motioning the others back he leaned forward, tail outstretched, and cocked his head above the stones before making a noise the like of which Kel had never heard in her life—low and rumbling but with something almost inaudible threading through it that made her think of a vixen’s scream, or the noises men made in the madness of battle. It lasted only a few seconds before Tkaa reached down to grasp the rock nearest him and picked up all five, extending them to a gaping Geraint.

            “They are fused, and the bonds are stronger than the rocks themselves. Limestone is too porous for real resilience but I believe this would suffice for any stress mortals might generate.”

            Speechlessly the building officer took the assemblage, peering at the joins and trying to break the rocks apart. Numair and Harailt examined it magically before grinning at one another, then at Kel.

            “Forgive me, Tkaa, but can you all do this?”

            “We can, Keladry. It is only a variant of the rock-spell.”

            “And you can do it on the scale we need here?”

            “Certainly. Numair may have to boost us if a very large area needs to be stabilised fast, and in that case another mage would have to shield all mortals from the spell, but it is not intrinsically difficult, nor exhausting to perform. You had a question, Geraint?”

            “Two, my Lord. How deeply your spell can penetrate the pile when it’s been rearranged, and how we should best sink foundations into it.”

            “I am no mortal’s lord, Geraint of Legann, nor may any basilisk be such. But to answer, as deeply as we wish, and with the same spell applied differently. When you know where you wish to sink a post or foundation, we will loosen the stone, and when the post is in place, re-set it. Also, if mud is packed around it, to fill any gaps, we can turn that to stone also. With that work even young Amiir’aan will be able to assist.”

            The visions this conjured left Geraint and Kel rubbing their hands in glee, and she left builder, basilisks, and mages deep in half-magical, half-mathematical  argument about how best to set about things. Daine turned to come with her, looking round for Kit, and saw the dragonet nose to nose with the young basilisk, scales pink. Checking with St’aara, who gravely consented, Daine collected both immortals, giving a hand to each, and caught up with Kel, who had watched in fascination.

            “Start as we mean to go on, Kel? I think Amiir’aan’s a bit shy, but he’s got good magic and Kit’s dying to show off her light-spell to anyone she can get to watch. Introduce them to your men?”

            Kel couldn’t have asked for more and spent a cheerful, amusing hour seeing the extrovert Kitten cajole Amiir’aan into turning various sticks, small carvings, and copper bits into stone she could light up with all the colours of the rainbow. Initially wary but not unwilling, and increasingly charmed both by free entertainment and a sense of the young immortals as more of the children their Protector of the Small was properly given to rescuing, the soldiers were soon relaxed and laughing, proffering new things to be petrified. After a while Daine called a maternal halt to the magic, and sat to tell stories of Kitten lighting up battlements to impress her grandsire, Tkaa petrifying hurroks, and St’aara’s and Amiir’aan’s wanderings around Tortall. When she sat Kitten scrambled into her lap and Amiir’aan quietly tucked himself between her and Kel, tail draped over his arm; by the time she was done the young basilisk had made contributions of his own to explain why he and his mama had always ended up moving on. The men were silent when he spoke in his whisper, craning to catch every word and (Kel sensed with fierce pleasure) becoming indignant on his behalf at fearful villagers who thought they might be turned to stone, hostile quarrymen, and masons so sure they needed no immortal competition they wouldn’t stop to consider advantages they might reap. Tkaa always said basilisks were by nature observer-diplomats, and watching Amiir’aan win the affections of her men Kel understood in a new way what he meant.

            After the grinding logistics of her journey with the children Kel found having a commissariat made field command so much easier that her sense of lightness was almost palpable. A force of well-trained and experienced professionals made all the difference in the world, and while Brodhelm was punctilious in reporting to her she wouldn’t dream of interfering in Company Eight’s well-oiled routine. Raoul had taught her long ago that the first rule of giving orders was not to do so whenever it could be avoided, for once you started they’d be expected every time. “It breeds inertia in men and makes martinets of officers who should be doing something useful,” he’d said. “Make sure they all know what needs doing, and leave ’em to it while you do your own work.” So she did, though she took care to go over patrol routes and sentry-points with Brodhelm, telling him of problems presented by dead ground and dense trees. She sensed approval of her detailed knowledge and returned the respect—he was careful and thorough, and though his manner with his sergeants and men was easy they were swift to obey. Merric could learn a lot from him.

            Everyone was up with dawn, and after breakfast the mages prepared. Kel had wondered if Numair would use the Sorcerer’s Dance, as he had to bring boulders to Haven, and when she saw him and Harailt holding recorders she knew she’d been right. They positioned themselves on either side of the scree-pile, stared hard at one another for a moment, then simultaneously drew breath and began to play. The first eerie notes seemed to stir only the hair on Kel’s neck but a lilting tune emerged as lines of melody entwined and after a moment she saw—and heard—rock begin to move, not from the top of the scree but about half-way down. Other rocks slipped as their haphazard balance was disturbed and soon the whole surface of the scree was in motion, scrub wavering and disappearing into a rocktide that rumbled and banged to the foot of the pile and kept going, flowing outwards across the valley floor for a thousand feet to pile up again in a broad arc. By then everyone had retreated; only Numair and Harailt remained within the moving stone, fingers flying as boulders swerved around their feet.

            Seeing it would be hours before the level of the scree would sink enough to expose the spring and cave Kitten had mentioned, Kel took herself off to see what else might need doing. The unhappy truth was that until the mages were done there wasn’t a great deal anyone could do except make their own preparations. Geraint and the building team had headed off for Haven but Kel had no heart for that job, and was only glad the rumble of magework drowned out the distant rasp of saws and creaking timber that would otherwise be making her miserable. Nor would it help to put herself on patrol or watch, and as yet New Hope had no paperwork to be outstanding. She had hoped for a chance to ask Tkaa about the other basilisks, but all four were watching the magical dance of rock as raptly as if it were a show by players or a fine piece of music. Perhaps to them it was, but she noticed after a while that Kitten was growing bored, so with a wave of approval from Daine, intent on Numair, she collected the dragonet and took Peachblossom for a ride.

            The big gelding, white-eyed at the ground-shaking rumble and audible notes, was delighted to get further away and made no objection to Kitten’s weight on his withers, nor to her claws carefully gripping his mane. The dragonet was an experienced rider but Kel didn’t risk a gallop; seeing the river had dropped a little she did canter Peachblossom across the ford and back, to his snorting and Kitten’s whistling delight. Then she took them up valley, passing between the rapids and the jagged end of the fin into its southernmost third.

            It had been in her mind for a while that from Haven, three miles north, they had underused this part of their resources. It had been on patrol routes, of course, and nuts and berries had been harvested, as the trees had been combed for deadwood, but they’d had no manpower to plough the bottomland nor protect any crops. But with New Hope—a name refugees and soldiers alike had approvingly adopted—at better than company strength and in all probability receiving more refugees as the war went on, that would no longer be true and Kel wanted to see what else there might be beyond the fin that she had neglected.

            With the limestone cliffs rising sheer for a mile, though dropping in height, and the western hills closing in steadily to force the Greenwoods ever closer to them, the upper valley was narrower but there were still hundreds of acres of good cropland. And for all it narrowed it was long, stretching another ten miles to where the Great North Road crossed it and beyond towards the peak where the river had its source among the snows. Kel had no wish to extend cultivation that far, but there were good meadows immediately beyond the fin that would be only a couple of miles from the gates of New Hope. When she explained her thoughts to Kitten the dragonet agreed politely that the soil looked rich but to Kel’s amusement obviously felt much as Neal did about vegetables. The seamed limestone cliffs were a better attraction, and after trotting south for a mile or so along the river Kel cut across the meadow and returned north sticking close to them, studying the southern face of the fin from this new angle with growing satisfaction; the rock wasn’t entirely sheer but not even mountain goats were going to be climbing into New Hope that way. The angle of fin and limestone was again softened by scree but on this side there was less and lacking a spring it had no plant cover. Reaching it Kel dismounted, lifting Kitten down, and watched with interest as the dragonet scrambled up to a largish boulder and began whistling it into flares of white and yellow. The lightshow really was pretty, but Kel’s more useful thought was that a second Sorcerer’s Dance might with basilisk help make of this angle a simple enclosure to serve as a corral and handy defensive position, closer than New Hope and far better than open fields for anyone working beyond the fin when Scanran raiders tried their luck.

            Calling a reluctant but obedient Kitten down and remounting, she cantered Peachblossom along the base of the fin, noting with surprise a slight sparkle in its dark hues. Pointing it out she was informed that the dark rock was made of different things stuck together, which made it strong, and among them were crystals and another kind that formed sharp edges. Fascinated by the dragonet’s odd knowledge and view of the world, it occurred to Kel that she made the rock sound like the kind of community New Hope would have to become, finding its strength and resilience not in sameness but in difference bound together. It was the kind of analogy Neal mangled in his attempts at poetry, not something she’d usually think, and she wondered if she’d been overexposed to his pining for Yuki or if the revolution in her mind since getting back to Mastiff was prompting a different kind of imagination.

            Rounding the end of the fin she saw the arc of scree had grown to thirty feet, blocking any view of the mages though notes sounded intermittently through the bass rumble of the rocktide. The top of the screepile had vanished though its outline remained in the lightness of newly exposed limestone, but from the sound it would be a while before there was anything to inspect. Kitten stayed while she unsaddled and rubbed Peachblossom down, then made a circuit of sentries, but when she settled to discussion of company matters with Brodhelm the dragonet offered farewells, startling and pleasing the officer, and went to see if the basilisks were being any more interesting. Kel shared her thoughts about the valley beyond the fin and was glad to find Brodhelm receptive, promising to look for himself. He asked in turn how she and Sir Merric had managed with so few troops at Haven and seemed struck by what she told him about the capacities refugees had shown, ending in their annihilation of a raiding party without calling for help at all.

            “It was a small party, mind—eleven irregulars, not organised troops, but they did well. And Haven fell to the killing devices as much as troops. Saefas Ploughman and Uinse, who leads the convict soldiers, told me they’d got everyone inside and were holding out until three devices came over the eastern wall together. They got one there, with nets and a pickaxe, and another inside, but not before they all wreaked havoc and dragged too many soldiers off the gate. And that was that.”

            Brodhelm nodded grimly. “I’ve seen them training, my Lady, and was surprised how good they were, even the children. You’ve done a fine job. And I’ve heard what Sergeant Connac said to my sergeants. But I didn’t know they’d killed two devices here. That’s impressive.”

            “I know. Sir Merric didn’t have them patrolling, of course—they were needed for ploughing and the rest of the work—but he did have the best archers and spearmen worked into watch rosters so no-one had to do nights for more than a week at a time. I realise you’ve enough men to do that anyway, but when the time comes I’d be glad if you’d consider it. Like the training, it helped them to know they were contributing to their own defence, not depending on others.”

            “Mmm, I see that. And I’ve no objections in principle, once I’ve a sense of who I’m trusting.” He hesitated. “Did the convict soldiers stand watches and patrol?”

            “They did. And every one came on to Rathhausak voluntarily.” The one benefit Kel had discovered to having her report become everyone’s favourite reading was that she could assume any Mastiff soldier understood in fair detail how things had unfolded.

            Brodhelm nodded. “I hear you, my Lady. Those lads have proven themselves, right enough. I was asking because my Lord of Cavall said he thought any extra troops we’d get would be convicts, and I’ve heard there are some due in a week or two, from the mines over by Seabeth.”

            “Let’s hope so. I’ll say frankly that my predecessor at Haven, Captain Elbridge”—Brodhelm nodded that he knew the name—“told me as he handed me his whip that convicts were scum who understood nothing else. He seems to have made sure their rations were short and their care from healers non-existent. My own experience, and Sir Neal’s, is that being properly cared for and fed soon turns sullen resentment and foot-dragging into pride, with hard work and loyalty fast following.” She shrugged. “I know they did wrong but they were thieves and brawlers, not men like Blayce or Stenmun, driven more by poverty than greed. In any case, the King gives them the choice to volunteer, by way of a fresh start, and I’ll not have anyone treated the way Elbridge thought fitting.”

            “Fair enough, my Lady. I’d not expect that of you and I’ve heard Captain Elbridge is a deal too fond of his whip.” His tone became curious. “Tell me, though, what punishments do you use when need arises?”

            Kel grinned. “Scouring armour and latrine duty, mostly. A solid week of it works wonders, I find.” Brodhelm chuckled. “The stocks if someone has to be restrained but that’s only happened once. We’ve had problems when new refugees arrive, but just squabbles from upset for the most part. Nothing worse than fisticuffs and no military problems that made it to me.” She thought for a moment. “It’ll depend if they already have squad sergeants, but if we get more convicts I’d be inclined to put Uinse in charge under you of all those squads, with Jacut as senior corporal. I can promote that far on my own authority and Uinse’s a natural.”

            He nodded. “Yes, they sound good men. If convict numbers go beyond a squad or two having one of their own over them makes sense.” He looked over her shoulder. “I think you’re wanted, my Lady.”

            Kel turned to see Daine waving at her, and jogged over.

            “They’ve uncovered the spring, Kel, and the top of a cavemouth. It looks big, and there’s a lot of rock spilled inside it. I’ve made Numair and Harailt stop for a bit to eat and drink, just, and it’ll be hours before they can clear it to the ground.”

            It was well into the afternoon before Kel could pick her way over a low pass left in what had become a hummocky scree-field to see the spring, a steady gush of water pattering onto the lowered stone slope beneath it, a white streak in shadow; more startlingly the dark outline of a cavemouth showed in the angle of the cliffs, a half-arch leaning against the darker rock of the fin. About thirty feet of ground around it had been cleared, and she followed Daine down the last few feet of stone to join the mages and Kitten with a childhood sense of exploring the unknown and finding a natural den. Numair, bathed in sweat and coated in dust, was chugging water from a bottle Daine had brought, but after a moment passed it to an equally wet and dusty Harailt.

            “It’s big, Kel, and the air smells fresh so there must be other openings. Good storage, though you’ll need to watch for damp.” He grinned. “Kitten wants to try her lightshow, though we might try magelight first.”

            “By all means, but only when you’re ready.”

            “Oh I’m not that tired magically. Just hot and dusty.”

            Harailt raised eyebrows, wiping his forehead, but if without Numair’s reserves didn’t have the pinched look mages got when they’d drained themselves and followed readily as Numair led them to the cavemouth. Enough daylight spilled in for Kel to see the floor was flat for some yards, but the entranceway angled away from the fin and she could see little beyond that. Numair called a ball of light into his hand, picking his way forward, then stepped to one side.

            “Come on in—it really opens up.”

            He let the spill of light from his hand play on the floor until they were all level with him, then cast it into the air. It floated upwards for what seemed a long way, before flaring dazzlingly to illuminate a wonderland that drew them all forward. The cave was enormous, deep and high with rounded walls white enough to gleam in the light; on the far side spears of rippled rock hung from the roof while others stood up from the floor, surrounding a pool. Its dark surface was still and Kel knew it would be deep and bone-cold. Closer to the fin the cave seemed dry, and thought the floor was uneven there was certainly space for storage and at need people. Nor could she see any end, and from the feel of air moving knew the cave must extend for some distance and would have to be explored, if only to be certain it offered no way in from elsewhere. But that was for another day.

            “Well, now, that’s useful.” Harailt spoke with a smile. “You’ve got a water reserve, Keladry. And it’s cool enough to keep provender fresh.”

            “You’re also going to have some happy basilisks, Kel. They’ll be glad to explore it for you.” Daine grinned. “All sorts of crunchy treats to find, though I don’t think you get gemstones in this kind of rock.”

            “You get fossils though, and Tkaa’s been known to say how tasty they are.” Numair sounded dubious. “I think he was teasing Bonedancer. But Daine’s right they’ll like a cave this big. Oh my, that’s fine.”

            The exclamation was prompted by Kitten, sitting by the rock spears thrusting from the floor by the pool and happily making them glow with beads of emerald and blue iridescence that chased one another up and down the stone in whirling spirals.

            “She’s refining that spell every day, I swear. Soon enough, Harailt, we’ll be able to improve that Carthaki light-spell we got from Lindhall.”

            “Don’t start on theory, love.” Daine laid a hand on Numair’s arm and he smiled at her ruefully. “Just be glad Kitten’s found something to keep herself amused while you go back to rock dancing.”

            “Slavedriver.” Leaving his light-ball glowing above he headed back toward the daylight of the cavemouth, holding Daine’s hand. “Kel, we need to know what to do so far as that spring is concerned. There’s no point moving the scree under it if we’re only going to have to put it back later. If we get the basilisks in, can you show us exactly what you want?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Four — Allying

July – August

 

It took ten days of hard labour punctuated by the rumbling shrieks, and left mages and basilisks looking the worse for wear, but when it was done Kel’s satisfaction was immense, and shared. From the circle of clear ground in front of the cavemouth a broad path rose across a gentle, curved thirty-foot slope of bonded scree smoothly faced with petrified mud, reaching the top about two-thirds of the way round. Beyond its end the scree nearest the limestone cliffs rose again more sharply before flattening to meet them in a broad terrace five feet below the level of the spring, splashing into a large stone cistern; the overflow was carried away in an open trough along the cliff wall. Below the terrace the main level spread like a plain for a thousand feet along cliffs and fin, rising steeply at its outer edge another eighteen feet into a shelf sixty wide, along the outside of which the walls would stand. And beyond that the stone plunged a full fifty feet at better than seventy degrees: the work of facing the glacis remained, but even with footholds among bonded rocks and free hands it was an awkward climb.

            Where the trough from the spring met the outer shelf it fed into a copper pipe laid through the rock, the water arching out to fall into a newly dug and lined pool that would connect to the moat. At the other end of the girdling shelf, where it met the fin, the roadway cut across the western face of the glacis turned, narrowed, and rose sharply (as Orchan advised) before reaching the top. Wide enough for a single cart, the roadway had a low inner side, exposing it to fire from above, but a near-vertical drop on the outer; at the bottom it curved sharply away, crossing the only part of the moat that had been dug out on a single fifteen-foot wooden span the building team had put together, complete with mageblasts to drop it at need, in less time than Kel would have believed possible. Beyond that there was only a beaten track across the valley bottom but paving would follow, and a bridge of basilisk-quarried limestone blocks was being built by the ford over the Greenwoods, against the annual snowmelt.

            Gatehouse, headquarters, infirmary, cookhouse and messhall, military and civilian barracks, stables, smithy, storage buildings, barns, latrines, and woodsheds had corner posts sunk, enabling teams spreading and smoothing mud Amiir’aan then petrified to concentrate on areas of immediate use. Kel was wary of making too much smooth stone too soon; they would want greenspace and trees besides a kitchen garden, but pathways were in place to save turned ankles, and work had started on the shelf. She won a mild argument with Geraint about a schoolhouse, agreeing cheerfully it came after essentials and reserving ammunition for a more serious dispute.

            Unexpected fifty-foot glacis or no, Geraint’s orders were to build double walls, of fifteen and thirty feet with a twenty-foot killing field between them, and that he would do. Kel had no objections, but after considerable thought decided she wanted the outer walls to have proper alures, which meant access from the inner wall—a bridge over the killing field, to Geraint an abomination. Access one way meant access the other, but after contentious discussions including Brodhelm Kel still felt that while there should only be one bridge, at the junction of western and eastern walls, with mageblasts all over it, the advantage of giving her archers better views, sharper, plunging angles of fire, and closer range unless and until anyone took the outer wall was too great to forgo. From the inner wall the outer would provide cover for anyone who made it any distance up the glacis, and though the increase in range to the ground was not that great it would degrade accuracy. And at bottom Kel wasn’t prepared to sit and let an attack happen; she’d meant what she said about the need to bleed an enemy, and that meant giving her people every chance to do so she could manufacture. Geraint hadn’t been happy but Brodhelm cautiously supported her, and the outer wall starting to rise along the eastern side of the glacis, using timbers from Haven, had a full alure, with inner stairways to give access to the killing field.

            In consequence, one further structure had been added to the plans, a square tower at the junction of the inner walls to house a permanent guard on the bridge; backup mageblast keys would be held elsewhere but if attackers got so far the tower captain would be in the best position to blow the bridge as late as possible and no later. Its elevated roof would also command clear views of the killing field, with more angles of fire than the inner wall would allow.

            The work had so absorbed Kel that when Numair observed one morning that she’d need to leave with him and Daine tomorrow to make Steadfast in time for the weddings, she was shocked to realise it was already the third week of July. Part of her was loath to go but she couldn’t let down Neal or Raoul, let alone Yuki and Buri. Dom would also be there, a bittersweet attraction, and anyway she’d promised. Numair, Harailt, and Tkaa would not be returning, and she persuaded them to spend the day shifting scree on the far side of the fin into a circular heap enclosing a four-hundred foot quarter-circle, twenty-five foot high and steep enough to require real climbing. A gap wide enough for one horse but not two was left hard against the fin, and Kel climbed the roadway back to New Hope with renewed satisfaction.

            What she could wear to the weddings was a sore puzzle. Geraint had recovered her things from Haven and she’d been absurdly happy to see her Yamani cats and paintings, as well as the bag of griffin feathers and spare weaponry, though she presently had nowhere to put them. But if the headquarters building hadn’t burned it had been smoke-filled, and her clothes were soot-speckled and reeking. None of the finery cleaned easily, and she feared the dresses were ruined, but had reluctantly taken her best Mindelan tunic and breeches to the cistern trough and rinsed them thoroughly, thinking Yuki would kill her for attending her wedding in such gear. Nor was she altogether relieved on the courier trail to Mastiff the next day, when she mentioned the problem to Daine only to be informed it was taken care of.

            “Neal realised you’d probably lost everything when you wore a tunic to that feast they gave for you, and came belting round to get Numair to open a firelink to the Palace. Yuki was always going to be bringing his new finery and now she’s bringing something for you too.”

            Kel imagined her Yamani friend was. Visions of flowery pink kimonos floated in her mind but Daine was looking thoughtful.

            “And actually, Kel, I think there’ll be more guests than we know about. If Thayet lets Buri get married without her I’ll be very surprised, so we may find more court dresses at Steadfast than the north’s seen since the Great Progress.”

            Kel wasn’t any happier for that but thought Daine might be right about the Queen, who was after all Buri’s oldest friend. If she’d thought about it in time she could have sent to Lalasa for something that wouldn’t make her look like a decorated treestump, but events had driven it from her mind despite Neal’s constant paeans to Yuki’s eyebrows, toes, and golden Yamani complexion. And while Thayet always seemed sensible she wasn’t called the Peerless for nothing, and her presence would mean an entourage of elegant court beauties who made Kel feel most acutely the price paid for her training in thickened ankles, column waist, and scars. At least her monthly had finished a few days before, with the bloated feeling that had accompanied her first courses since returning from Rathhausak, but it was cold comfort.

            Shortly after noon they stopped at Mastiff to eat and allow Kel to report to Wyldon. He heard her enthusiastic description of the defences already achieved with interest, informed her the eastern building team were due shortly, and when she lingered sent her on her way with instructions to enjoy herself and a request to convey formal letters of congratulation to Queenscove and Goldenlake. Neal, Seaver, Faleron, and Owen had left two days before with Duke Baird, but Wyldon and Harailt were staying.

            “Someone has to hold the fort while you’re all disporting yourselves.” His face was stern but Kel could see through his demeanour to a dignified amusement. “Go on with you, Keladry. The whole front’s been quiet since your return and Sir Myles says Maggur’s back in Hamrkeng trying to hold his army together, so I expect we’ll be safe enough in your absence, this time.”

            Feeling emotion surge as she realised he’d seen to the core of her reluctance, she turned back from the door and before she could persuade herself out of it gave him a quick hug.

            “Thank you, Wyldon. You’re a good man.”

            Then she fled, for once leaving him pink-cheeked, and within minutes was waving to children as she rode past the tents with Daine and Numair, heading down to the Northwatch road and west for Steadfast. After a quiet night at a waypoint, marked only by a conversation between Daine and a bear they found hopefully snuffling at the mage-locked storage bins and delighted with a small gift of honey, they rode through the fort’s imposing gates in time for lunch, and found social bedlam winning a struggle against army order. Queen Thayet was there, an Ownsman on the gate informed her gloomily, as were Prince Roald and Princess Shinkokami with a half-dozen Queen’s ladies, three groups of Queen’s Riders, and five squads of the Own’s Second. Moreover, he added with a sniff, half Corus had taken advantage to ride along and seemed surprised to find a frontline fort in wartime did not have every comfort they thought essential. Passing to the stables Kel got no further than dismounting before being tackled fiercely by Tobe and Jump, who’d ridden with Neal and the others, then by the groom-to-be, hair in wilder disorder than usual and jittering as if his breeches were full of ants.

            “There you are at last, Kel. You’ve cut it very fine. The weddings are tomorrow, you realise? You delight in torturing my last hours as a bachelor. Yuki’s been beside herself since her brother arrived and whacking me with her fan every other minute. Even Raoul’s growling.”

            “Keiichi’s here?”

            “With more swords than any man needs. You’re looking after him tomorrow, seeing as you speak Yamani and he doesn’t speak much Tortallan or Common. Now come on, for pity’s sake, or there won’t be a wedding because Yuki will have killed me.”       

            Abandoning Peachblossom and the sparrows to Tobe and Jump with a promise to see them properly as soon as she could, Kel let herself be dragged to the barracks serving as female quarters and thrust through the door as Neal rushed off on some other errand, still jabbering like a madman. She had no time to ponder Keiichi’s presence, though, or that he spoke very good Tortallan, Common, and two other languages because an unusually demonstrative Yuki fell on her with a rush of words and a string of orders to a company of seamstresses and maids. Sorting through the chatter Kel decided Neal had not been exaggerating as much as she’d suspected: her friend was bright-eyed and her shukusen did look as if it had received hard usage lately, but there was that purpose in the apparent confusion that told her Yuki was running everything smoothly, and the panic was Neal’s. Amid the bustle she found herself stripped to breastband and loincloth and measured in all directions by an efficient woman who consulted Yuki and rushed off. She was reaching self-consciously for her shirt when Yuki stopped her.

            “No, Kel, we can do the fitting straight away.” She frowned, looking her friend up and down. “You’ve lost weight but Lalasa’s measurements are still good, so there’s not much to adjust—some tucking for the bust of the underdress, and perhaps the hips.” Coming forward she grasped Kel’s hands, searching her eyes with a serious look. “It is very good to see you alive and well. We’re all so proud of you. Was it very bad?”

            Kel smiled, ignoring polite Yamani blankness and her undress, and leaned forward to hug Yuki. “It wasn’t pretty but it’s over and everyone’s safe. What about you? All set for tomorrow? And who’s this we? You and Cricket?”

            “Oh yes, all is ready except your dress and the flowers, but they won’t be done until tomorrow morning. Lord Sakuyo knows how the food will be—we brought delicacies from Corus but we’re having to rely on the Own’s cooks—and yes, Shinko’s proud of you, of course, but there are other people who want to see you too.” A sly smile lit her eyes. “Including one I doubt you’re expecting.”

            “That sounds ominous. Who—”

            Kel’s curiosity had to be stifled as the seamstress returned with what appeared to be an entire wardrobe and set about investing Kel with more layers than one of Numair’s explanations. There was a fine lawn shift that made her very conscious of shabby small clothes, then an underdress the woman ruthlessly adjusted and pinned beneath her breasts and at her hips, indifferent to Kel’s embarrassment at being rather intimately handled and her squeak when a pin went astray. Once that was completed with a brusque promise to have bust and waist properly sewn for the morning, the next layer was a gorgeous cream silk under-kimono decorated with a leaf pattern, and finally a magnificent over-kimono in a deep forest green with Mindelan owls and its own creamy distaff border and obi—beyond question Lalasa’s handiwork and repeated on a pair of fine slippers. Speechless, Kel stared at the elegant stranger in the metal mirror the seamstress held up, then at Yuki who dimpled pleasure, smiling so much she had to hide behind her fan.

            “That’s better.”

            “It’s amazing, Yuki. You can’t have had this done in a month!”

            “No. I was always going to bring you a proper dress kimono or I knew I’d have a bridesmaid in breeches.”

            “A bridesmaid?

            “Yes, Keladry. You’re my oldest friend. Did you think you’d be standing idly about?”

            Kel spluttered and Yuki grinned. “Cricket insisted on being matron of honour, as the Queen did for Buri, so you’re in good company.”

            “What do I have to do? I’ve never been a bridesmaid, Yuki.”

            “You haven’t? But all your sisters are married.”

            “I missed Oranie’s and Adalia’s weddings. And Demadria’s.” She wasn’t going to tell even Yuki that despite her mother’s efforts her fashion-conscious, very feminine sisters would sooner have had a stormwing attend them than the Cow. “Just give me clear orders, Yuki.”

            “It’s not complicated. You and Cricket walk behind me holding flowers as we go in and follow us out afterwards, pairing with Neal’s best man and supporter. Then you help me change, we go to the second ceremony, and you’re off duty.”

            “I can do that, though why you think I can help you change is beyond me.”

            Yuki grinned. “There’ll be maids, don’t worry.”

            “Good. Who are Neal’s best man and supporter?”

            “His cousin Domitan and Roald.”

            “Oh.” Kel’s heart bounced. “Right. Flowers, behind you in and beside Dom out, defer to the maids. Anything else?”

            “Face paint, Yamani-style. I’ll do you when I do myself.”

            Kel scowled. “Must I?”

            “Of course you must. Do you want Keiichi to report that I was attended by a barbarian?”

            “As if he’d care. How is he, anyway? I didn’t think he could make it. And why does Neal think he can’t speak Tortallan?”

            Yuki’s eyes crinkled and she whipped her fan up again. “He’s well, and the emperor overruled his mother-in-law. Very publicly.”

            “Oh my. That must have been fun all round.”

            “So he says. I think he adopted the dumb act for the fun of teasing Neal, the dubious pleasure of hearing him mangle Yamani half to death, and to win time to see me and Cricket by ensuring no-one else is thought competent to entertain him.”

            Kel laughed. “Sensible man. I’d forgotten how wicked he can be. From Neal’s babbling about swords I take it he’s in full samurai fig?”

            “Certainly. He is representing the emperor as well as my parents.”

            “Really? He’s doing very well.”

            “Yes. My parents are exceedingly happy with both of us. Let Sabila take the kimonos and the rest until tomorrow, and come to see Cricket.”

            Beautiful and flattering as the outfit was, Kel was glad to get back to her comfortable breeches, shirt, and tunic. Her relaxation was short-lived, though, for when Yuki showed her to the room where Shinko was waiting she found not only Thayet and Buri with the Queen’s Ladies, Uline haMinch among them, but to her astonishment her mother.

            “Kel, sweeting.” Ilane of Mindelan grasped her youngest daughter’s hands fiercely before enfolding her in a tight hug. “By the time we heard about it all you were safe, thank the Goddess, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen your father have so many kittens as he did when the King showed him your report. Or be so proud. We both are.”

            “Oh Mama.” Kel felt herself tearing up and swallowed hard, clinging to the practical. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t not.”

            Ilane gave her a searching look. “Sorry? Whatever for?”

            “Risking so much. Our honour. If Lord Wyldon and the King hadn’t been so generous—”

            “Nonsense, Keladry.” Thayet’s voice was firm but kind. “You did nothing of which you shouldn’t be very proud. And that deal Jonathan made with you shamelessly took advantage of your confusion and injury. He can’t pay off one debt with another, as he knows perfectly well. If I’d had my fan when he told me I’d have whacked him, as Yuki does Neal. No, don’t look at me like that—it’s no more than the truth. And I’m bothered if you’ll apologise for saving all those people from that putrid mage. But I’m afraid we do want a first-hand account, so come tell us.”

            Kel wasn’t sure if that was the royal we but despite the confusions roiling inside her there was clearly no getting out of it, so she let herself be seated and plied with tea before answering questions as best she could. Though the Queen’s Ladies were graceful, courtly women they were also trained to arms, if not as knights were; their questions were practical and if tinged with admiration that made Kel increasingly uneasy showed a grasp of logistics as well as sharp appreciation of the assistance her animals had given. Buri’s and Thayet’s questions were more searching; Cricket and her mother listened intently with a stillness that told Kel they were holding in strong emotions. Eventually Thayet and Buri exchanged a long glance and sat back, faces thoughtful.

            “Raoul said you’d taken a deathly risk at Rathhausak, Kel, and he wasn’t wrong. But what else were you to do?” Buri smiled dryly. “And I have nothing but admiration for you getting those children back to Tortall. Thayet and I once had the dubious pleasure of escorting a tenth that many through a war-zone, and what we’d have done with two hundred I cannot begin to think.”

            “Gods, that’s true.” Thayet shook her head. “We didn’t have any men-at-arms, mind, but until we met Alanna and Liam we didn’t have any idea what to do. Sarain was a nightmare in those days.”

            This story was new to Kel and from their looks to most of the Queen’s Ladies, and as Thayet and Buri were coaxed into telling it Kel gratefully withdrew from attention. Shifting to sit between her mother and Cricket she quietly caught up with both, finding Cricket eager for her own, long postponed wedding to Roald and wistful that Yuki would precede her into the mysteries and pleasures of marriage. A similar thought had crossed Kel’s mind but this was hardly the place for intimate talk and she let conversation slide to preparations Cricket was making, and the Yamani delegation that would attend. A month’s leave for the round trip to the capital was out of the question, unless Maggur were to drop dead and end the war, and though they both hoped for it she knew in her heart that wasn’t how events would play out.

            Ilane had assorted news of family and brought Kel shocked congratulations from Anders and Inness with welcome news of two royal warships stationed at Mindelan against possible reprisals. Perhaps mercifully, she hadn’t seen Conal since Kel’s report had been published, or tactfully wasn’t saying. Later, when they slipped out to find the lunch Kel had missed and tucked themselves into Ilane’s guest-room, she also wormed out of her daughter some explanations of her apology and what Thayet had meant about a deal, eyes darkening.

            “Thayet was right, Kel. That stinks.”

            “I didn’t think so, Mama.”

            “You wouldn’t. But if it makes you happier, that’s good.” She sat in thought for a minute. “The King’s right you were grossly underestimating yourself, though. I didn’t bring you up to …” Her gaze sharpened. “It’s because you weren’t there, isn’t it? You were trying to punish yourself.”

            Kel flushed. “That’s what Dom thought.”

            “Masbolle? Wise man.”

            “I don’t know, Mama. Maybe. It’s hard.” Truth broke through. “It’s not that I wasn’t there for the attack. I know I can’t be everywhere I should—no commander can. But I didn’t do enough before. I knew the defences weren’t up to any real attack. Gods, I even knew why we were being attacked so often, that the children were the target. I should have got more men out of Wyldon and Raoul somehow. I knew I should. And if I had many people would be alive, and the children wouldn’t have had to survive a nightmare.”

            “Wait, Kel. How could you know all that?”

            The King’s explanations had not extended to the Chamber nor the involvement of Irnai and at least two gods, and Ilane’s eyebrows moved steadily skywards as she listened. But whatever curses she wanted to heap on the Chamber, she was impatient with her daughter’s guilt.

            “Whatever you thought you knew, Kel, the vulnerability of the refugees was political maths, nothing you or Lord Wyldon could have done anything about. I agree it’s wrong but it’s how it is. And war’s never logical close to. You did all you could. Actually, you did a great deal more. Venting at command wouldn’t have got you anywhere but everyone’s black books, and when it did all happen as you feared you did something truly amazing to save your people. I doubt they’re complaining or calling for your head, so why are you?”

            “I’m not any more, Mama. I accepted the King’s deal gratefully. And I’m putting the energy into fixing that political maths another way.” Kel wasn’t going to report Irnai’s prophecy and worry her parents when there was nothing they could do, but she could describe New Hope and its improbable construction, winning riveted attention. Ilane was too observant not to realise something driving her daughter was going unspoken, but the building capacity of mage–basilisk teams given loose stone to work with was news for anyone to ponder, and when one or two questions shaved close to the bone Kel shyly proffered the tale of her conversation with Wyldon. Just like Raoul, Ilane first stared and then collapsed in her chair with a whoop. Kel glared at her.

            “What’s so funny about it? Raoul’s reaction was the same, as if Wyldon really were like the stump Neal calls him. He’s just a person.”

            Ilane whooped again. “This from you? Sweeting, he’s the stiffest man I’ve ever met who can still move and he treated you appallingly.”

            “Not really. He just didn’t treat me well. But he let me stay and cured my fear of heights. I couldn’t be what I am without him.”

            “I know, sweeting. And it’s not really funny, you’re right. Actually, it’s rather touching. But it is the best irony I’ve heard in a while, that after all his bile about the unfitness of women in arms you and he should become better friends than he is with most people in his own political circle.” Ilane wiped her eyes. “I take it this isn’t public news?”

            “Certainly not. It’s no-one’s business but our own.” Kel smiled. “And I’m keeping the pleasure of telling Neal in reserve for when I really want to shock him.

            Ilane grinned. “That makes sense, though I shall have to tell your papa. And Anders, if I may—he’ll enjoy the irony too, when he’s picked himself up off the floor.”

            Their conversation drifted into domesticities about Mindelan, and after a while Kel went to discharge her promise to Tobe and hear what he’d been up to with the fine warhorses Wyldon kept, and Jump with the equally fine wardogs. Afterwards she ate supper with Neal and the other knights of her year, hearing news of quiet patrols and when they were briefly joined by Roald and Owen describing New Hope to some amazement, but declined their invitation to help get Neal drunk. Before taking herself off to bed, though, she did manage a quiet chat with Merric, telling him about Brodhelm and how Company Eight were working patrols and defence. He nodded and met her gaze.

            “Lord Wyldon told me that you wanted me as Brodhelm’s second, if I was willing. And I am, Kel, never doubt it. I’m just glad you still trust me after—”

            “Hush.” She laid a hand on his arm. “There were a lot of mistakes made, Merric. Command screwed up, not us—we were left holding the babies, literally. I want you at New Hope because I can trust you, not just as a knight and captain. You know our people and they like you. I think Brodhelm can teach us both a lot, but you can keep him up to the mark if he steps astray. Thank you for agreeing to come back.”

            It had been a more emotional afternoon and evening than Kel had been expecting, but Merric’s strength and commitment was a good place to end it, and she found her small bed in a barracks-room shared with a Queen’s Rider with a sense of another step taken.

            She rose before dawn, fed Jump and the sparrows, and fitted in an hour of exercise and pattern dances as well as delivering Wyldon’s letters to Neal’s and Raoul’s rooms before eating breakfast and dutifully reporting to Yuki to be painted. It had been years since she’d worn the full white mask with bright lips and shadowed eyes high etiquette required, and while she disliked the sense of constriction all that was needed was her familiar mask, as expressionless as the white paint. Yuki turned her brushes on Cricket, who returned the favour, and all three were assisted into their layers of clothing. The adjustments to Kel’s underdress were a marvel, and the fabric now lifted her bust into near-respectability and flared at her hips, making her waist seem thinner. The changes enabled the thin ties of her under-kimono and obi to be drawn tighter, extending the benefits outwards.

            Yuki’s kimonos were the pure white traditional for wedding, in Yaman as in Tortall, with the most delicate white-on-white embroidery showing the arms of Daiomoru and Queenscove; to Kel’s impressed amusement there was also a proper tsunokakushi headpiece in the design that always reminded her of a broad-beamed riverboat. Cricket’s outfit, by contrast, was a deep red as dark as Kel’s forest green, embroidered in gold with the Conté sword and imperial Yamani dragon, and bound with a black obi. When they presented themselves for inspection to Thayet, green and red framing Yuki’s bridal white, the Queen sighed pleasure and congratulations, as did Ilane, in fine grey kimonos but without face-paint. To Kel’s delight and envy Thayet, Buri, and Onua Chamtong, Buri’s bridesmaid, had broken out their best K’miri outfits, loose, embroidered white leggings and long, richly coloured, elaborately decorated tunics. Buri said she wasn’t about to start married life by abandoning trousers and giving Raoul strange notions of domesticity, and there were a few improper remarks that made Kel grateful for paint that hid all blushes.

            The ceremonies were not until afternoon but time seemed to fly. At one point Kel answered a brisk rap on the door of the women’s quarters to find Dom, magnificent in silk trousers and a Masbolle tunic, bearing the groom’s gift to the bride and elaborately sealed letters patent approved by King and Emperor that made Yuki heir to Queenscove until she and Neal had children, established her style as Lady Yukimi noh Daiomoru of Queenscove, and symbolically granted a parcel of land in a corner of the second largest Yamani Isle. Bowing in almost correct style, Dom proffered her a long, thin box and bundled scrolls.

            “My lady, these are for …” His voice trailed away as he saw the Mindelan owl on her kimono and searched her face. “Kel? Is that really you in there?”

            “I can’t smile in all this paint, Dom, but yes, it’s really me. You’re well? It’s good to see you.”

            “Oh, I’m good. You look splendid, though.”

            Was she imagining that his eyes lingered longer than was polite on her boosted curves? Her heart thudded, and she found herself again grateful for concealing paint, but they talked easily for a few moments. Raoul had filled Dom in on the essentials of her meeting with General Vanget and King Jonathan, and he twitted her gently about her fears beforehand and offered amused congratulations on the fate of her written report. She in turn gave him an outline of the startling building of New Hope, which he promised to see as soon as he could, but both had other duties calling and after hastily fetching the bride’s gift to the groom, a magnificent Yamani sword, they ended with mutual promises of a proper chat later.

            Neal’s gift turned out to be a finely worked shukusen, in finest Yamani steel with the Queenscove arms, which made Yuki quite tearful and necessitated careful dabbing by Cricket to save her face-paint. The mutual exchange of weaponry by two of the least warlike people Kel knew struck her as far more ironic than her understanding with Wyldon, but in Yamani terms the coincidence of gifts was a good sign—one of the occasions when they said Lord Sakuyo was favouring you with a benign joke. Moved by an impulse she didn’t entirely understand but felt it wise to honour, Kel slipped away to Cricket’s rooms—in so far as her outfit allowed her to slip anywhere—and lit an incense-stick at the portable shrine the Princess maintained in thanks for delivery from the marriage arranged for her before the emperor decided she must replace the late Princess Chisokami in binding the Yamani–Tortallan treaty. In the islands Kel had loved stories of Sakuyo’s jokes, and lighting the incense after murmuring a short prayer for Neal’s and Yuki’s happiness felt a welling peace that left her breathless. She peered suspiciously at the shrine with its smiling figure of the god amid shide and braided shimenawa, but a sharp call from Yuki recalled her to duty and she set the puzzle aside.

            The wedding went without a hitch, and indrawn breaths from the packed assembly as Yuki walked into the fort’s Mithran temple, Kel and Shinko bearing flowers behind her, were very satisfactory. Keiichi, an impressive figure in dress samurai kimonos, unarmoured but wearing both swords, waited to claim Yuki’s hand and pass it to Neal, proclaiming their parents’ consent and the emperor’s blessings in the high imperial mode Kel hadn’t heard in years. Vows were spoken in Yamani and Tortallan, and if Neal’s accent was execrable he did get words and grammar correct. Catching Keiichi’s eye as the intent groom just avoided swearing stability rather than fidelity she had to bite her cheek, and from Keiichi’s stillness thought he too was having difficulty maintaining decorum. Then it was done, marigold necklaces exchanged, fire lit, and a demonstrative Tortallan kiss exchanged. She fell in with Dom behind Roald and Shinko, accepting his arm and feeling hot flesh beneath his fine broadcloth tunic.

            As soon as they were outside she had to trot after Yuki to watch a flock of maids help her friend exchange white kimonos for others in Queenscove colours, befitting her new status and avoiding the ill fortune of wearing white to another’s wedding. Despite the mock-protests of her friends and its use in concealing blushes, Kel took the chance to remove her face-paint and the enhancements to eyes and lips that made her feel fraudulent. Then it was back to the temple to see Raoul in best Goldenlake finery and Buri in her splendid K’miri outfit claim one another as if no-one else existed in the world, which Kel thought an achievement with Thayet ten feet away, radiant with joy for her friend. And finally there was food by the bushel and drink by the gallon, the Own’s cooks showing themselves more than equal to Corus delicacies and clearly possessed of excellent contacts among locals who fished the Vassa for its large and succulent bream.

            Kel was indeed seated next to Keiichi, who greeted her solemnly but with twinkling eyes in that high imperial mode.

            “Keladry-sama.  It is my honour to meet again the valiant daughter of your most honourable mother. My Imperial Master commands me to convey to you his personal congratulations on your achievement of knighthood.” Slipping into the familiar mode between friends he added, “And had He known of it, I am sure He would have added His admiration for your more recent exploit, which I shall report to Him.”

            Surprised by Keiichi’s high honorific and touched the emperor would bother himself with pleasantries, though she knew it was a tribute more to her mother than herself, Kel summoned her memory of the proper reply in such a matter to a ranking samurai scholar-diplomat.

            “Keiichi-sensei, this fortunate person is overwhelmed by the honour of His Imperial Majesty’s most gracious notice and begs you will forgive her deficiencies in responding.” With relief she let herself follow him into the familiar. “Which you’ll have to do anyway, Keiichi-san, as while I don’t in the least mind keeping up your pretence of such dreadful ignorance I haven’t used the high mode for more than ten years.”

            He let a smile show. “Am I not a most shameful brother-in-law? It was just that Nealan greeted me in such fine Yamani I hadn’t the heart to tell him he need not torture himself with our absurd language.”

            “Oh, was that it? Yuki-chan thought you merely wished to avoid all the dull people with whom you would otherwise have had to make polite small talk in a barbarian tongue.”

            “That too, of course. Though you may find it of use yourself given the portly gentleman on your other side. He is some relation of Lord Raoul’s, I believe, who does not entirely approve of foreigners.”

            Kel had no idea who the man was, and as he omitted to introduce himself when she sat she was happy to return the favour and stay in Yamani for a pleasant conversation with Keiichi. He knew she’d known Neal for a long time and discreetly sought impressions, moved, Kel thought, by genuine concern for his sister’s happiness; he also quizzed her about her sudden fame, and in return gave news of all kinds from the Islands. Although he was eight years older than Yuki he’d been very protective of her as a child, and Kel had always liked him for that as well as himself, so her evening was enjoyable. Even the speeches weren’t bad, especially as she was mercifully spared any such duties herself—though she was mentioned by both Neal, who looked dazed with happiness and relief, as the person who first made him appreciate Yamani culture and warned him of how their poetry differed from Tortallan romanticism, and a beaming Raoul as the finest, not to say only, matchmaking squire he’d ever had. Both regretted the absence of the Lioness, as knight master and best friend, but she hadn’t been able to leave Frasrlund.

            Quite how people managed it after such a meal Kel wasn’t sure, but speeches were followed by hours of dancing before the retirement of the newlyweds to their bridebeds, accompanied by raucous and indecent encouragements. Having endured stiff or simpering congratulations on her heroism from assorted people she didn’t know, who seemed far more curious about the oddity of a Lady Knight than interested in what she’d actually done, she cornered Dom and despite the difficulties of moving in kimonos managed one dance with him, enjoying his scent and the hand resting at her waist as they rounded the floor. But she saw his attention stray to an hourglass blonde flirting indiscriminately and let him go with a pang, slipping out of the messhall in the hope of finding a seamstress or someone else competent to help her shed and fold the kimonos.

            She was in luck, and touched to discover Yuki had provided rigid panniers in which her new best clothing could be properly packed. After reverting to shirt and breeches Kel took the panniers to her room and considered going to bed, but decided her full stomach called for a turn along the walls. The night was as balmy as the north ever became, and though the moon was only a sliver the stars were bright and light spilled from many windows with sounds of good cheer. Softly greeting the sentries she climbed to the alure and had worked her way round two walls when she found Daine with a bird whose rippled plumage made Kel think of treebark. Uncertain she hesitated, but Daine glanced up and beckoned her on.

            “It’s alright, Kel. He doesn’t mind.”

            She went forward. “What is he?”

            “Nighthawk. He was out after moths and stopped to say hello.”

            Tentatively Kel extended a hand to stroke the bird’s head, finding the feathers softer than those of sparrows. “He’s very handsome.”

            “Flatterer. You’ll give him ideas.”

            The bird flew off, revealing surprisingly long wings, and Daine turned amused eyes on Kel.

            “Given your arms, there’s someone else you should meet, if you can wait a moment. I sensed him a little while back.”

            She took a thick cloth from her waist, wrapping it around her forearm, and closed her eyes, extending her arm. Kel could hear nothing beyond familiar insect noises and the faint murmur of the Vassa but after a moment a tremendous white shape ghosted soundlessly from the darkness to perch on Daine’s improvised guard with thickly feathered feet, talons flexing. Great yellow eyes considered Kel from amid pure white plumage before turning to the Wildmage, who raised her hand to stroke the owl’s face softly. Kel found she was holding her breath.

            “Hello, wing-brother. How goes your hunting?”

            The reply must have been satisfactory, for Daine went on to explain that Kel’s arms included an owl. The puzzle of what understanding even this magnificent a bird might have of heraldry seemed unimportant when the owl again regarded her unblinkingly.

            “He approves. You should stroke his cheek. He likes that.”

            Hesitantly, not so much for the hooked bill as in delighted wonder, Kel did and the owl leaned into her caress before Daine launched him into darkness. Eyes shining, Kel laid her hand on the Wildmage’s arm.

            “Thank you. That was … special.”

            “The pleasure’s mine. I’ve always liked owls. They have clear minds.”

            They leaned together companionably in a crenel, looking out to the forest. There was a pensive expression on Daine’s face.

            “A copper for your thoughts?”

            “Oh, just marriages. Since Numair and I were wed three years back we’ve both wanted children, but there was that trip to Carthak with Kally, and by the time we were back this war was beginning. It’s frustrating, and today’s made me fret on it. My Ma’s getting impatient too. She gave me one of those looks when I told her at Samradh I’d be here today and asked her blessing.” Daine grinned wickedly. “She’s supposed to be a goddess of pregnancy and childbed but she seems to reckon that includes what comes first. She always liked a good gossip.”

            Kel shook her head, smiling, though inwardly she was embarrassed. “And I thought it was strange when Numair said he’d met Lord Gainel at his in-laws.”

            Daine grinned again. “Only once, when we were godknapped during the Immortals War. He’s been using that line ever since.” She gurgled a laugh. “He’s more cautious these days, though. He tried it during that eternal Progress on some old biddy who was boring him and got treated to an account of every dream she’d ever had before he could escape. I passed that story on to Da and he said Gainel thought it was funny too. What is it, Kel?”

            “Sorry, I’m just thinking about gods and how you and Numair are so familiar with them.” Kel waved a hand. “I’ve never had any magic and though I always honour Lord Mithros and the Goddess, and Lord Sakuyo, I never felt or experienced anything strange.” She turned, taking a deep breath and letting her eyes wander over the familiar order of the fort. “And it was important that I didn’t. Everyone knew the Lioness was god-touched and I wasn’t. And that was fine, a kind of honesty—what I achieved was through my own sweat. Even the Chamber didn’t seem strange, really—it was supposed to give you visions, and when the Nothing Man became a recurring dream it was just more of the same. But then I met Irnai and found out it wasn’t just the Chamber but Lord Gainel and Shakith. And today when I lit a stick of incense to Lord Sakuyo for Yuki’s and Neal’s happiness, I felt … I don’t know, a sudden peacefulness that wasn’t quite me.”

            Daine’s voice was wry. “Gods are unsettling, right enough, never mind having your Ma turn into one. They’re nothing like as perfect as they think either, even the Great Gods. At least my Ma remembers what hunger’s like, and living with folk who scorn you. The Great Gods have never been mortal and they’ve no more humanity than your Chamber. Shakith I’ve only seen once, not to speak to, but Gainel … well, he’s the best of them like that. It’s the foot he has in Chaos, I suppose, and the time he spends in mortal heads. Still”—she took Kel’s hand, squeezing—“you’re probably right you’ve caught their attention now, if you hadn’t before, and that’s uncomfortable. I won’t say you should trust them—they’ll do what they think needs done and mortals get hurt in the process. So do the People. But I think just now they’re … on your side. And that you should keep on just as you are.” She sighed, letting Kel’s hand go. “Da says even they don’t know what’s going to happen but something is, connected with the war that changes what comes after, and until it does everything’s in what he calls flux. But the Badger said he was pleased about you killing Blayce, and others too, so while gods are no better at gratitude than griffins I guess you have favours owing. Just be careful what you pray for.”

            Kel blinked. “Huh. Honours in Corus and favours from gods. I was just looking out for my people, Daine, not looking for rewards.”

            Daine smiled. “I know, but there’s no more refusing gods’ generosity than their anger. And they can do things no-one else can. It’s fair useful sometimes.”

            And with that disturbing but hopeful thought Kel had to be content.

 

* * * * *

 

She had the next day to see Cricket, Keiichi, her mother, and Raoul. Her former knight master might have used noble privilege to marry but couldn’t leave the fort without a commander, so Buri would stay at Steadfast in his enlarged quarters and, though she’d resigned command of the Queen’s Riders, act as co-ordinator for Rider groups sent north. Kel had hoped to spend time with Dom also, but he and his squad, with Balim’s, had headed out shortly after dawn, with throbbing heads, to investigate a frantic report of a tauros attack further west. Disturbed by the news, Kel managed to lunch with Yuki and Neal, who had a week’s leave before he was due to return to New Hope, while Yuki would go to Corus for Roald’s and Shinko’s marriage. What came after was moot, but to Kel’s pleased surprise she found Yuki wanted to join Neal at New Hope. Giving Kel a newly knowing look she said she found marriage agreed with her and hadn’t wedded Neal only to live apart from him.

            Not for the first time Kel thought she really didn’t want to imagine her best friends in that way, especially with news of a tauros in her mind, but also felt the familiar ache of her own frustrations and growing regret for the possibilities she had sacrificed for knighthood. The sense of being isolated in chastity had never bothered her as page or squire, even when Cleon made clumsy jokes before her jousts about dying a virgin, and she’d expected to sleep with him sooner or later; but it hadn’t happened, she’d lost her feelings for him as those for Dom grew stronger, and his arranged marriage to Ermelian of Aminar in April had separated them permanently. Now, as she saw her friends’ happiness, hands lingering in touches as strangely intimate as they were public, and thought about the marriages of her yearmates that were sure to follow, she began to understand more clearly the kind of sorrow lonely nights would become. There was, she couldn’t help feeling, too much truth in the old verse her father liked quoting in difficult negotiations: The toad beneath the harrow knows / where every separate tooth-point goes; / the butterfly upon the road / preaches contentment to that toad. As a dreaming ten-year-old she hadn’t known what she was surrendering but today knowledge pressed. Annoyed with self-pity she took herself off to find Tobe and pack, thinking that while she might not have had the fun of conceiving him—whatever it was like—or the burden of carrying him, she already had, to all intents and purposes, a ten-year-old son.

            On the following day, having made farewells and wondering how long it might be before she saw Keiichi again, the ride to Mastiff with Owen, Esmond, Seaver, and Faleron as well as Tobe, Jump, and her sparrows was peaceful. Arriving as dusk faded into night she was concerned to see considerable bustle around the refugees’ tents and within the fort, but when she strode to his office, abandoning Peachblossom and the animals to Tobe, Wyldon was talking calmly to a burly, fair-haired man of about thirty whom she didn’t know.

            “Ah, Mindelan, you’re back.” Punctilious as ever he rose to greet her, as did the other. “I don’t believe you’ve met Sir Rannac of Greendale. He’s come in as my second and patrol captain here, replacing poor Sir Berrinol.” Wyldon’s former second had died in the battle on the day after Kel’s attack at Rathhausak. “Greendale, this is Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, commanding at New Hope and ranking officer of the district after myself and Goldenlake.”

            The man offered a heelclick with a bow, and a calloused hand. “Lady Knight. I’m honoured to meet you. Your report made the best reading I’ve had in a while, and I offer my sincere congratulations and thanks for killing that mage. I was at Northwatch before being posted here and we lost a lot of good men to those gods-cursed killing devices.”

            Wyldon’s eyes flickered disapproval of the profanity but Kel could detect nothing but professional courtesy and genuine gratitude and took the hand willingly. Greendale was east of Goldenlake, on the Drell, and while its politics were conservative she didn’t recall any of its knights or nobles among her challengers during the Progress.

            “Sit, sit.” Wyldon waved her to a chair. “All went well at Steadfast? And all quiet there now?”

            “It did, my Lord—a fine occasion—and I delivered your letters. The Queen was there, supporting Commander Turiakom, as well as the Prince and Princess, and much to my surprise my mother, so I had a good time. And yes, all was quiet when I left, militarily, but yesterday there was a report of a tauros attack further west. They’re investigating.”

            “A tauros attack? Mithros. Where did one of those horrors spring from?” Wyldon frowned distaste for the compulsively and violently libidinous immortals. “Let’s hope it proves a false alarm. We haven’t had a tauros this far north for a while. But I’ll draw up a warning notice for our civilians, Greendale, and we’d best get women and girls behind the walls as soon as we can. Post additional sentries at the treeline tonight and make sure all company captains are aware of this news.” His brow furrowed. “Tauros hoofprints are distinctive but few men will have seen one. We must make sure everyone brushes up on immortal fieldsign.”

            Sir Rannac nodded and Wyldon turned to Kel.

            “Please do the same with Frasrlund and Company Eight, Mindelan, and both building teams. The eastern team reached New Hope the day after you left and the startled report their leader sent me bore out all you said about what you’d managed there. I’d already been considering letting the volunteer refugees go—a fellow called Adner’s been rightly insistent about recovering as much crop as possible—and that report decided me. Civilians will be at least as safe behind that glacis you’ve got as outside the walls here, so I told Fanche and Saefas yesterday the adults who wanted to help build and farm could go as soon as you were back. That’s the bustle I expect you saw.”

            Kel had been prepared to make exactly those arguments about crops and safety, and was delighted to find herself anticipated.

            “Thank you, my Lord. The eastern team and a hundred plus civilians will make a big difference.” She didn’t doubt more would volunteer but there were children to care for.

            Wyldon nodded. “Yes. And we’ll be able to get all remaining here inside the walls. There’s no sign of Scanrans but I’ve never been happy to have so many in tents. And with even a hint of a tauros, that doubles.”

            Appreciating Wyldon’s priorities and lack of complaint about having his well-ordered military command set about with hordes of children for weeks on end, Kel met his eyes as she nodded, conveying her thanks.

            “I couldn’t agree more, my Lord. As soon as the walls and gatehouse are done, I’ll make the cookhouse, barracks, and stables priorities. Then we can take the children back and relieve you of their care. But we will need food, I’m afraid. A lot of crops were trampled and though we should get a second lot in, we’ll not have half what I was hoping for.”

            “Fair enough, Mindelan. The quartermasters know that and the livestock recovered from Haven is doing well enough, so you’ll have that as well as whatever game you bring in.”

            “And kitchen-garden stuff, my Lord. We’ve already planted one at New Hope. It’s bulk foods and staples we’ll lack, though Geraint did manage to recover some grain and rice from Haven.”

            “Understood.” He frowned suddenly. “We’ll need to think about your immortals, though. The basilisks can find stone enough, I dare say, but Vanget said he’d had enquiries from ogres and centaurs who’ve had problems with Maggur’s men. You look pleased.”

            “I am, my Lord. I’ve spoken at length with the Wildmage about the set-up at Dunlath, and I don’t see why we can’t make it work too. I’m hoping anyone—any being—who comes will be willing to fight, if only to protect themselves. But immortal refugees are still refugees, and the treaties mean we owe them protection, so I believe it’s my job as well as our advantage to recruit all I can.”

            “Hmmph. Well said. I only hope you feel that way when, what’s her name, Quenuresh turns up.”

            “It’s agreed?” Kel nearly kept her voice level.

            “She has. Food for thought, eh? General Vanget and the King will be wanting regular reports on how that works out or doesn’t, gods forfend. Which reminds me I have your spellmirror. It’s set for Northwatch and here, and Vanget or I can bring in His Majesty by fire if needed.”

            Kel digested this. “Sir Neal’s not back for another week. Can one of Company Eight’s mages activate it for me?”

            “Yes, anyone with the Gift can and needn’t stay.” His fingers drummed on his desk. “I shall come with you to New Hope tomorrow. I’m meeting Vanget at Giantkiller the evening after to decide what we do there and I want to see that glacis for myself.”

            Kel nodded, surprised. “Very well, my Lord.”

            “Mmm.” Wyldon seemed to reach a decision. “Greendale, would you excuse us? Get started on the tauros warnings and post those extra sentries. I’ll join you shortly.”

            “At once, my Lord.”

            As the door closed behind him Wyldon gazed at her with a wry smile. “The thing is, Keladry, you’ve set us by the ears again. No, no, it’s nothing bad. The opposite, really. Giantkiller’s supposed to screen New Hope, as well as defending the Brown River valley, but from descriptions of your glacis they’re more likely to find themselves falling back on you if things go badly.” He shook his head admiringly. “It’s Goldenlake’s rule about changing odds you don’t like, isn’t it? And you didn’t like the best odds we could offer you and your people. Astonishing. But having a fortification that strong in the Greenwoods valley changes the balance that made us build Giantkiller in the first place.”

            Thoroughly alarmed Kel sat very straight. “Wyldon, I’ll still be relying on civilians to man my parapets. Are you proposing to transfer all the companies earmarked for Giantkiller to New Hope?”

            “Mithros, no.” His face went thoughtful. “Not yet, anyway. Could you take them?”

            Kel thought about space. “Yes, just. But that many extra barracks and stables would double the buildings we’d need.”

            “Mmm. I’m not sure it’s an option. Covering Riversedge and Tirrsmont from there would be a problem and we need a central fort closer to the Vassa. But if Giantkiller faces attack in force you’ll be the nearest refuge. And ours from here, come to that, so I have to see the place for myself.”

            That Kel understood: no commander could rely on the unknown. “Will General Vanget come on to New Hope from Giantkiller?”

            “I suspect so. He’s been wanting to meet you properly and doesn’t often get away from Northwatch.” Wyldon gave a slight smile. “If things stay reasonably quiet and we don’t get early snow you’ll have other visitors in September as well. The King’s agreed the Prince and Princess will visit New Hope after their wedding.”

            Kel’s eyes widened. “Really? Cricket didn’t say anything. Nor Roald.”

            “Cricket?”

            “Oh, I’m sorry. Princess Shinkokami. It was her childhood nickname and Yuki and I still use it.”

            “I didn’t realise you knew her that well. Interesting. And I doubt she or the Prince yet know themselves. It won’t be announced until the last minute.” He regarded her curiously. “It’s a political decision, of course. Your report was very well received by the whole of Corus, I understand. Do you object?”

            Kel thought about it. “No, not at all. I rather like it, actually. And I think the refugees will too.” She hesitated, but they’d touched on this ground before. “I’m not sure His Majesty would get such a warm reception. The Tirrsmonters don’t feel too good about the nobility in general and the King’s the only authority that could overrule their liege-lord, but hasn’t.”

            “That’s understandable.” Wyldon’s hand clenched. “That man’s a disgrace to all of us and if I’d been burned or raided out I don’t think I’d be interested in explanations of why we can’t do anything about his bl—his incompetence. I’m sorry—Greendale’s setting me a bad example.”

            Kel looked at him affectionately. “I’ve heard worse, Wyldon. Even said worse myself, occasionally. And Mithros knows I’ve nothing but hard words for Tirrsmont.” She raised an eyebrow. “Was it going to be ‘bloody’ or ‘blasted’?”

            He huffed a little, then smiled, at himself as much as her. “The latter. It’s not because you’re a woman, you know. I dislike all profanity. Always have. My knight master was too often a foul-mouthed man and I vowed I would not follow his example in that regard.”

            If Kel remembered rightly Squire Wyldon’s master had been Sir Everhart of Haryse, whose prose was certainly choleric.

            “That must have been miserable for you.”

            He shrugged. “Done and dusted long ago. You should eat and sleep if we’re off at the crack tomorrow. Was there anything else?”

            She thought. “One thing, maybe. I wasn’t going to say anything yet, but I’ve been trying to absorb the, um, divine interest there seems to be in events here. And one conclusion I reached was that I want a temple at New Hope, or at least proper shrines.”

            “That seems wise. To Mithros and the Goddess?”

            “Yes, but perhaps others as well. Shakith and Lord Gainel don’t usually have shrines but I wondered if it might be wise to honour them somehow.” She hesitated, then pushed resolutely on. Wyldon would not laugh at anything divine. “And Daine was telling me about her parents. Apparently Lords Weiryn and Gainel are friends.” His mouth quirked with her own. “I know. But I was thinking shrines to Weiryn and the Green Lady might be, um, a good investment. We’re in hunting country, needing game, and with the number of young women among the refugees we’re bound to have midwifery problems.”

            “Mmm. Yes, that sounds wise too, Keladry. But forgive me, how does it concern us now?”

            “Well, I was wondering if the Prince and Princess might bring a senior divine for a dedication.” She gave him back a wry smile. “If we can stage the ceremony at Mabon and Daine’s there, who knows what other guests might come?”

            He stared. “Setting the gods as well as us by the ears. Huh. I’ll pass the idea along. And it’s hardly a request the Archdivines of Mithros and the Goddess could refuse.” To her surprise he sat back, smiling as widely as she’d ever seen. “You really are a remarkable young woman, Keladry, and I’m most impressed with how you quickly you’re learning to think politically on top of everything else. The royal visit was Goldenlake’s idea, a good one, but you’ve refined it.” He looked at her consideringly. “You realise it will compound your personal fame considerably?”

            She flushed. “That’s not my intent.”

            “Oh I realise that, or I’d not have asked. But a first visit by the heir after his marriage, with our future queen, in acknowledgement of heroism by a personal friend of both in saving children and ending the killing devices, as well as properly thanking the gods—who are already known to have blessed you as Protector of the Small? People want good news from this war, and that’s going to qualify in spades.”

            Kel sat speechless, and when she did speak her voice was subdued. “I hadn’t thought of it like that at all. I just want my people to survive whatever it is that’s coming, and not thanking the gods when we know they’re watching doesn’t seem right.”

            “Just so. And the more celebrated you and your people are, the more the Crown will feel obliged to ensure you have the resources you need. It’s a virtuous circle, Keladry, and you seem to be learning it instinctively, in the best way.” Wyldon paused, seeming to debate with himself, then shrugged. “Frankly, for better or worse you’ve been a symbol for many people ever since you started as a page. And you’ve handled it exceptionally well, mostly by not realising your own potency. But you were always going to have to come to terms with your political status, and that you’ve proven yourself a first-rate commander at a time when we need such people desperately only makes that more urgent. If you want advice, don’t fret about it and do keep on just as you were.”

            She glared. “Easier said than done.”

            He chuckled. “I know. But I’ve learned to have faith in you, and everything’s easier on a full stomach and a good night’s sleep. I imagine King’s Reach and the others will have found the food I told the cooks to keep back. Jesslaw certainly will have, and you should too. I’ll walk you over and greet them before I go to Greendale. Come.”

           

* * * * *

 

The horses and ponies from Rathhausak meant all adult refugees coming to New Hope—nearly one-hundred-and-fifty, including most of the Scanrans—could be mounted, and they took the courier trail in a half-mile column, armed squads at point and rearguard but no scouts save for sparrows. Kel rode behind Wyldon in the van, admiring his warhorse, but though she was pleased to lead the refugees back to a new, safer home her mind was chewing Wyldon’s words and the bizarre dance of politics her straightforward actions seemed to generate.

            She couldn’t pretend unfamiliarity with the phenomenon. Her dream had been to be a knight, adventurously helping people, not to set the realm ablaze with extremities of praise and censure; but it happened anyway before she had the slightest awareness of it. Joren and Vinson had come to loathe her personally but they’d hated her before they’d ever seen her, as The Girl and, absurdly, a symbol of everything their fathers disliked about events older than she was—as had all the tedious, mostly third-rate knights who’d challenged her during the Progress. Her only response had been to be herself, letting hostility bounce off her Yamani mask and never complaining. It had served her well as Raoul’s squire, riding with the Own, and she’d hoped when she finally passed her Ordeal to return to the relative anonymity of muddy, happy service among Third Company’s ranks. A part of her been cautious, remembering Raoul’s intimations of command, girls who’d watched her joust, and the Lioness’s flattering words on the night after her Ordeal about the example she’d set, but she hadn’t begun to imagine the situation she found herself in. Still worse was divine attention and she couldn’t wholly suppress resentful indignation at the turnaround it represented. The Lioness had walked with the Goddess to marvellous purpose, and within Kel the girl who’d dreamed of emulating her rejoiced at the idea of truly doing so—but Alanna had had a divine guide and her formidable Gifts as warmage and healer, and Kel was less than amused to find she was expected to endure similar difficulties with neither.

            But resentment got her nowhere and induced a sense of shame at impiety into the bargain. Thayet’s and her mother’s reactions to the deal the King had made her were also unsettling, as was the strange parallel between their belief she’d sold herself short and her own conviction of having let down those in her care. How was she to know what was proper self-confidence and political assessment, and what the arrogant self-assertion she’d always hated, in this brave new world that had such problems in it? By the time they came to the gulley that led to the Greenwoods valley and passed the challenge of Brodhelm’s scouts she’d decided Wyldon had again been right, and all she could sensibly do was carry on and let gods and politics do what they’d do anyway.

            The courier trail came into the valley just south of the fin, so she could point out to Wyldon the corral and anticipate his reaction to first sight of New Hope as they wound back into trees for a half-mile before emerging onto greensward above the rapids. She was eager herself to see the progress and when Wyldon abruptly slowed, directing his horse to stand off the trail, she followed suit, waving the column on and ignoring the exclamations as refugees saw their new home.

            The sight was all she could have hoped for. With a second building team at work even the five days she’d been away had seen dramatic transformation. The outer wall was complete, base bristling with the heavy, close-set spikes of an abatis that gleamed with the sharp edges of obsidian, captured Scanran banners that had hung from Haven’s walls standing out colourfully; along the western face the inner wall was beginning to rise, extending from the heavy timbers of a gatehouse. At the junction of the walls the outline of the tower was visible, and distant hammering and sawing could be heard. On the glacis work parties secured by ropes were packing and smoothing mud, while a basilisk—Var’istaan, she thought, from its size—was petrifying dried rendering, careful movement in a rope cradle punctuated by rumbling echoes of the rock spell. Other parties were digging out the moat, which extended along most of the western face; working on the roadway to the ford; and, with glimmering magecraft and the occasional sound of St’aara shaping stone with a spell that sounded like a gravel, on the central arch of the stone bridge that now all but spanned the Greenwoods.

            Further up the valley the walls of Haven had disappeared with most of the buildings, leaving the burned-out infirmary and one work party strangely visible. Those timbers would have to go, Kel decided instantly, and had a sudden vision of how they could be used to surround the mass grave at the centre of the knoll, where the flagpole still stood. A swirl of breeze showed her her own flag at half-mast, and she felt a rush of gratitude to Geraint and his men, who honoured the ground they trod even as they reclaimed all they could. Wyldon followed her gaze.

            “Your orders?”

            “Not specifically, but I told Geraint about the grave, and that we’d make the knoll New Hope’s burial ground.”

            He nodded again. “More good thinking, Mindelan. And by Legann. But that”—he gestured towards New Hope and its glacis—“is astonishing.” He looked at her intently, then at the busy scene below where the squad on point and the first refugees were crossing the ford, slowing to examine the bridge and talk to the work party. “Godfrey of Carent, who leads the eastern building team, said flat out this place would be harder to take than Northwatch, but I didn’t believe him. Nor Harailt, for all he described it accurately. Foolish of me. Tell me again how this was done?”

            She described the co-operation, Numair and Harailt lifting and shaping heaped stone section by section, as a child shapes sand, and the basilisks, boosted by power stored in black opals Numair provided, roaring overlapping spells that fused rocks for hundreds of feet into the pile while everyone kept their distance, sheltered from the echoing spells by mages of Company Eight.

            “Huh. Remarkable, and important. Is a black-robe mage necessary, do you think?”

            “No. Without Numair we’d have needed far more mages, I suppose, but if you were bringing in well-broken rock, rather than reshaping a mound already there, you could build up from the ground, bucket by bucket. It’d be slower but if you had the basilisks you’d hardly need any other magecraft at all.”

            His eyebrows lifted. “So you wouldn’t. When word gets round basilisks are going to find themselves in demand. Did it exhaust them?”

            “Not really. Tire them, yes, but the rock-spell and its variants don’t seem to use up their magic as they would for mortal mages. Or perhaps they have so much any depletion didn’t show.” She looked at him. “I’ve been chary about asking that sort of thing directly but it’s on my list of questions. I did discover from Tkaa that the male, Var’istaan, on the glacis, is courting St’aara, on the bridge. Her son Amiir’aan will be working on the surfaces within the walls, I expect—he can do the spell perfectly, but can’t cover the same sort of area.”

            Wyldon’s face was unreadable. “The adult basilisks are courting?”

            “So Tkaa said. Or deciding if they’re going to court. Basilisks mate for life, apparently, so as they’re immortal they don’t choose fast. He also said Amiir’aan’s father was killed more than a century ago, in the Divine Realms, but wouldn’t say how, only that St’aara might be ready to court again and would certainly be considering her son’s needs. I was surprised because I was thinking of Amiir’aan as pretty young, given his size, and hadn’t quite equated that with ‘only in his second century’.”

            He blinked. “You’re serious?”

            “Entirely. Daine says it’s the same with dragons and they aren’t regarded as adults until they reach their twenty-first century. It puts things in perspective, rather.” She carefully kept a straight face without resorting to her Yamani mask. “Tkaa’s in his four-thousands, and travelled the mortal realms extensively before the Human Era began. St’aara and Var’istaan are both an epoch or so younger.”

            She saw Wyldon’s lips twitch. “Such precision, Mindelan. If Tkaa would co-operate, or other immortals under treaty, perhaps we should have it as a question for the Big Tests. ‘Estimate the age of this being to the nearest epoch.’”

            Kel let a grin show. “I’m not sure Lord Padraig would appreciate the answers, Cavall.” His lips twitched again. “And there’s another side to it.” She sobered as the last refugees and rearguard cantered past. “We know spidrens grow and breed the fastest of any immortal but Daine says they also have the shortest life expectancy. If they don’t kill one another competing for food and mates they get themselves killed by mortals for the same reasons. Like young centaur bucks trying to get gifts to win mares, I suppose, but worse. I thought it was interesting both St’aara and Quenuresh want somewhere safe for their young.”

            He nodded thoughtfully. “Yes. I don’t mean to embarrass you, but did they know of you as Protector of the Small?”

            “Var’istaan did. He mentioned it.” Even to herself her voice sounded resigned to the Chamber’s unwieldy label. When did that happen? “I don’t know about Quenuresh.”

            “Hmm. It’s a point to bear in mind. I don’t believe we’ve ever seen the young of different immortals interacting—even at Dunlath.”

            They set off again, catching the guards and rearmost refugees at the ford. Kel made a point of introducing Wyldon to St’aara, thanking her as well as the party from the building team for their work—an easy task as the bridge was decidedly impressive, with the keystone of the final, central arch just emplaced. The senior builder backed her up with equal sincerity, explaining that the basilisks’ ability to shape limestone blocks far faster than masons could manage and bond the voussoirs of each arch as soon as they were in physical contact had enabled them to dispense with a form as well as slow-drying mortar, turning a month’s work into a week’s. Wyldon was his punctilious self in greeting and thanking all, and Kel knew the refugees lingering to listen were absorbing their example.

            Splashing up the far bank they trotted behind the rearguard towards the base of the glacis, greeting the parties heaping and grading the roadway or laying flagstones. When they came to the bridge over the moat Wyldon again reined in, staring at the stone-lined trough studded with sharpened stakes that gleamed like the abatis. Petrified spoil was steeply piled on the outer side, increasing the difficulty of crossing it. Kel halted Peachblossom beside Wyldon’s horse, then kept pace as he moved on slowly, looking carefully about as they rounded the sharp corner and began to mount the glacis. The drop on the outer side grew as the warhorses’ heavily shod hooves rang on the stone.

            “We paved the roadway with a thin layer of petrified mud straight away for safety, but the bridge party’s next priority will be a series of traps right along here. Pits six feet deep and twelve long, across the full width, staked, with cross-supports mined with mageblasts to support wooden roadway over them. I’ve also wondered about blazebalm with mageblasts to fire it along the inner wall.”

            Wyldon winced but nodded. “The whole thing will be a killing field.”

            “It has to be. There’ll be a pit within the gatehouse too. And I shall certainly be following the example of the younger Lord Grogar with bags of rocks suspended from the merlons. Thank you for putting me on to Orchan, by the way.”

            He nodded acknowledgement, gesturing ahead to where the last refugees were vanishing from sight. “I saw you’d taken his advice about turn, narrow, and rise. You’ve improved on him, though. I can hardly begin to calculate what would be needed to assault this place.”

            Kel never stopped such calculations. “Magery. Failing that, mangonels or trebuchets, giants, anything with wings, and a force sufficiently large and disciplined to take heavy casualties and keep coming. Or enough beserkir. Fire too—but the walls will be stone and I’m hoping for stone roofs on every building.”

            He blinked and stared. “Too heavy, surely?”

            “Not with stone pillars. The basilisks’ rock spell is very precise and directional when they want it to be. Build in wood, petrify selectively.”

            “Mithros. You are thinking well.” He rubbed his forehead as if to clear it. “Anything else up your sleeve?”

            “Mined rockfalls around the valley, especially above the road north. It might be possible to knock out siege engines before they arrived; even a command or mage group. And whatever else I can think of or comes to hand. Centaurs could shoot and run from the trees, or sally from the corral. I’m not sure what ogres can do but if Quenuresh proves willing there have to be all sorts of uses for spidren webbing—bundles of it stored on the alures to drop on attackers to start with. Cases of griffin-fletched arrows there too, and griffin-feather bands to cancel illusion spells. I still have most of the feathers I was given for raising that little monster I was idiot enough to rescue at Owlshollow.”

            “Huh. I’d forgotten about that.”

            “Lucky you. The scars on my hands remind me every day.”

            Making the sharp turn where the roadway narrowed they breasted the steep rise and the noise of carpentry abruptly increased. A score of men were labouring within the framing timbers of the gatehouse, floors taking shape. Geraint, working one end of a large saw, waved swift greeting but didn’t stop, and they rode through the forest of timbers to the broad shelf, New Hope spread before them. Wyldon would have reined in again but the noise was too loud for conversation and at Kel’s gesture he followed her down the path to the main level. Some buildings were only foundations but to their left the messhall lacked only a roof and along the fin stables, a headquarters building, and eight barracks had begun to rise, parties working on all of them. Commissariat wagons defined a central eating area, and tenting to one side dormitories and latrines; wagons that must have come with the eastern building team stood in rows, laden with seasoned timber. Horses were neatly picketed along the foot of the eastern shelf, hay spread before them, and refugees and guards were gathered in a knot around Brodhelm. Seeing them approach he pushed towards them as they dismounted.

            “My Lord, my Lady. You travelled safely?”

            After a fractional glance at Wyldon, who merely nodded, Kel answered. She commanded here.

            “We did, thank you, Brodhelm. All’s well? You’ve done wonders.”

            “No problems, my Lady, nor any sign of Scanrans. And it’s been Masters Geraint’s and Godfrey’s men who’ve done wonders. Godfrey’s at Haven, supervising the last dismantling, but he’ll be back soon. Do you have orders for these new hands, my Lady?

            ‘I do, Brodhelm. Let’s take care of that now.” Many refugees had followed the captain anyway and Kel could see Saefas pushing towards her with a fierce look. “It won’t take a minute.”

            “Lady Kel.” She thought Saefas might have embraced her had Lord Wyldon not been there and found herself clapped heartily on the arm. “We don’t know how you did this but it’s a wonder.”

            “And a comfort, I hope. But as you see there’s a lot of work still to do.” She raised her voice to cut through banging and rasping from the barracks. “People, listen up. Right now the weather’s dry, which is good as none of us have a roof to sleep under. That has to be fixed, but your priority is crops. Adner, as soon as everyone’s eaten take whoever you need and get to it. What equipment do we still have, what do we lack, and what are the urgent tasks? Assign work parties as you will, and if there’s anything you need that someone else has, ask Captain Brodhelm here or Master Geraint, who’s working on the gatehouse, or Master Godfrey, who’s over at Haven. Questions?”

            Adner shook his head. “No, Lady Kel. I’ll know by this evening exactly what we’ll need for tomorrow.”

            “Good. Tell us all when we eat. Anyone Adner doesn’t need, now or tomorrow, you’re building. The only exception is Zerhalm and anyone he picks to help with horses. All others, unless someone in authority asks you to work on the walls or glacis, you’re on barracks and stables. Captain Brodhelm will introduce you to the foremen here on the main level. Work to your strengths but take direction from them—they’re very experienced—and if you really think someone’s missing a trick, ask politely. They’re interested in getting it done, I’ve found, not ignoring good ideas. All clear?”

            It was, and she held up a hand.

            “Security. Before anyone does anything, even Adner, you’re all going to listen with both ears to Captain Brodhelm brief you on patrols and sentries, where’s off-limits, and who needs to know where how many of you are. Everyone is counted out and back in. No arguments and no messing, or someone’s in trouble.” They grinned though they knew she meant it. “Next, Captain, I’m sorry to have to tell you Steadfast had a report of a tauros attack. It’s not confirmed yet but we act as if it had. Warn your patrols, please, and brief everyone tonight on tauros prints and other fieldsign. No-one goes out of sight in less than a group of five with at least one steady archer and pole arms.”

            He nodded, grim-faced. “My Lady.”

            “One last thing. You all knew we had basilisks helping here and now you’ve seen them. The lady at the bridge is St’aara. Her son, petrifying mud over there and sneaking looks at us between times, is Amiir’aan, and he’s a sweetie. The big fellow working on the glacis is Var’istaan. St’aara. Amiir’aan. Var’istaan. Remember the names and get them right, please. They’re good people—good beings—and they’ll be staying to make their way among us and continue helping.” She surveyed them under lowered brows. “I doubt any of you need telling that arguing with a basilisk is a dumb idea, but if you have a problem, or might have a problem, or even imagine a problem you could have somewhere down the road next time there’s a week of Tuesdays, you come to me, as soon as may be. I don’t expect trouble, and I do think that if you’ll give a seven-foot beaded lizard who’s sweated hard to build this place for us all a chance, you’ll find we have three immortal friends, and maybe more to come.”

            Their concentration was fierce and she couldn’t see any dissent, though some looked more dubious than thoughtful.

            “But if there is trouble, of whatever kind, you stop right there and tell the basilisk, this goes to Lady Kel, now. And if you see someone else forgetting that, remind them, as forcibly as you have to. And I’ll tell you one more thing—these basilisks and other immortals who may come are refugees too. They signed treaties and kept them faithfully, and the Maggot didn’t care any more than he did about your homes and families and livings. Yes, they’re immortals, and sometimes they scare me too, but they’re our immortals and they’re going to scare Maggot a whole lot worse if he comes calling.”

            Ending, she felt a shiver as if someone had walked over her grave, but her line got the cheer she’d worked for, and she waved Brodhelm to carry on while collecting Wyldon with her eye. She led him to the inner corner of the main level, then down to the cavemouth where a corporal stood guard, right hand bandaged. He saluted awkwardly with the other.

            “My Lord, my Lady.”

            “You’re here in case anything comes out, Kelner?”

            He nodded. “Yes, my Lady. Just to be safe, like. We’ve some lamps inside but haven’t explored, and I cut my hand so the captain put me here today.”

            “Sensible. How’s the hand?”

            “Oh, not bad. Healer Morri just wanted it rested for a day or two because the cut was deep.”

            He sounded glum and Kel clapped him on the shoulder, smiling shared frustration with healer caution before leading Wyldon through the slanting entrance to the cave. Numair’s lightball had long faded but an oil lamp burned on the floor just inside with others, unlit, standing ready if needed. Kel lifted it high and saw stone spears gleam though the surface of the pool remained as dark and still as ever. Wyldon stood at her side, looking round.

            “This is good, too. Water and a retreat at need.” He breathed deeply, wetted a finger, and held it up, slowly turning it. “Air’s moving. That’s what Kelner meant about exploring?”

            “Yes. The basilisks like it. Amiir’aan’s done some looking and says there’s a lot of cracks and little passageways. St’aara’s promised they’ll check it out properly as soon as the buildings are done. Meantime”—she shrugged—“there’s no other cave at ground level in the valley that could connect, not that anyone can find, anyway, so it didn’t seem a priority.”

            “Fair enough. Those stone formations are impressive.”

            “Yes, I’ve never seen the like, but Numair says they happen in big limestone caves where there’s water.” She angled the lamp to show the matching spears studding the roof above the pool, and smiled. “You should have seen Kitten—she made them light up with little beads of light, all spiralling round. Very pretty.”

            “Kitten? Oh, Veralidaine’s dragonet.”

            “Yes.” Checking Kelner hadn’t followed them in she punched him lightly on the arm. “It’s just Daine, Wyldon. It wouldn’t kill you to say it.” He looked his surprise. “She doesn’t like the full form. I think it reminds her of people in Galla who’d use it with her Sarrasri surname to needle her about not having a da.”

            “Oh.” He frowned. “I can see that. Thank you for telling me.” After a moment he added with a smile, “Besides my stuffy habits I suppose I thought it an impudence to use a diminutive now she goes by Weirynsra. And while I’ve come to know her quite well, at the Palace and with this war, I wouldn’t say we’re close.”

            Kel smiled back gently. “Just unbend a little, if you would. She doesn’t like formality any more than Raoul.” He snorted. “Why not ask her about your horses and dogs sometime?”

            Leading the way out, with a word to Kelner, they climbed the path and up again to the cistern and gurgling spring.

            “We’ll pipe water directly to infirmary and cookhouse. The slope should give us a decent feed. And the overflow trough runs through a pipe at the end of the eastern wall to supply the moat.” She walked along the terrace for seventy or eighty yards to a wide, shallow bay in the cliff where the trough cut straight across, leaving an irregular crescent of unpaved scree between it and the limestone. “This is where I thought to put shrines. Niches in the rock, as in Yaman and that cliff-temple at Port Caynn. Some woodsmen refugees are fair hands at carving.”

            Wyldon studied the area. “Yes again. You’ve an excellent eye for possibility. This whole interior layout is first-rate.”

            Warmed by his praise Kel smiled and they went on along the terrace, then round to the eastern shelf, where postholes marked the line of the inner wall and picketed horses looked up at them, towards the busy frame of the north tower. As the noise of hammering grew louder Wyldon turned to her.

            “Let me wander on my own, Mindelan, and take it in. I appreciate your argument for alures on the outer wall but I’d like to see the angles myself. Then I want a closer look at what they’re doing with that glacis.”

            She left him to it and after eating threw herself into work. Knowing from experience the carpenters wouldn’t welcome her fumble-fingered help and mindful of Duke Baird’s cautions about overworking her shoulder, she resigned herself to latrine duty, releasing a more able pair of hands, and spent a smelly hour loading the soil wagon. It wasn’t dignified but after their initial surprise the Company Eight soldiers she was with began to show appreciation of a commander who didn’t shirk unpopular jobs, and cajoled details of the night-attack on Rathhausak. After that she spent time with Amiir’aan, joining the men fetching and spreading mud for him to petrify into clean, flat stone and raised paths, before the return in late afternoon of Master Godfrey. He proved as pleasantly efficient as Geraint, and after offering thanks for his work and respect for the dead at Haven they had a satisfactory discussion about using timbers from the burned infirmary to frame the mass grave. Then Adner returned from inspecting fields, for once smiling. More crops might be recovered than he’d hoped and though ploughframes had burned at Haven the shares had survived, as had equipment stored in fieldsheds. He agreed with her about the bottomland north of the fin and promised to start its cultivation at once.

            With everyone working all the hours of daylight time flew. Wyldon left at dawn next day for Giantkiller, accompanied by squads from Mastiff and followed down the roadway by Adner and nearly a hundred refugees intent on getting a second crop sown. Kel fell into her day’s work, lugging soil buckets, fetching mud from excavation of the moat, and helping carry timbers from laden wagons to wherever they were needed. With the stone bridge complete St’aara and that party began on roadway pit-traps, half by half so people could pass. Var’istaan and other parties were busy facing the glacis but with fifty-odd additional pairs of hands—many experienced in woodwork—to help the bulk of two building teams, barracks and stables seemed to fly up and the messhall acquired a low-pitched wood-shingled roof.

            Three days after leaving, Wyldon and his escort returned with General Vanget and his, and Kel had the pleasure of welcoming her superiors to a fort visibly taking proper shape. In person the haMinchi general was as cheerfully bluff as he’d been by spellmirror, full of congratulations on the rescue and building. After giving him the tour and outlining various additions to the defences she had in mind, he expressed grimmer approval and sat with her and Wyldon on the terrace by the cliffs to discuss wider strategy. Against the wishes of many, who thought it bad luck, Giantkiller was being rebuilt with an additional wall and earthworks but not enlarged, and would continue as a central shield for Riversedge and what remained of the Brown River valley population. The timber freed would be sent to her and, when possible, a second regular company and no less than eight squads of convict soldiers assembling at Steadfast.

            “Frankly, Lady Knight, they’re volunteering in such numbers because they’ve heard about you and that their predecessors who were with you in Scanra have had their magemarks cancelled, so you rightfully get ’em.” Kel hadn’t heard that bit of news and was viscerally pleased for the men who’d redeemed themselves so valiantly. “Use your own judgement. If you want to keep them as loose squads, that’s fine, but if you want to make a full company out of ’em, go ahead.”

            She thought for a moment. “Full company, sir. It’ll be better for their morale.”

            “Well enough. Wyldon said that’s what you’d choose. And if you think that fellow Uinse you praised in your report is up to it, appoint him captain. I’ll confirm it. Elsewise I can send someone from Northwatch.”

            Very surprised at such patronage, Kel immediately opted for Uinse, whose capabilities as a leader she didn’t doubt though she thought he’d need help with paperwork, and thanked General Vanget warmly.

            “No, no, man’s earned it by all accounts. So have you, gods know. Now, less pleasantly, I’m afraid that tauros attack west of Steadfast has been confirmed. Two women dead, poor things. And there was another east of Northwatch. One victim.” He made the gods’ circle on his chest and Kel followed suit, murmuring a prayer to the Black God for the lost souls and trying not to think of how they’d died. “We’ve also had a report from Hamrkeng that they were in Scanra, somewhere well north, but the Maggot somehow persuaded them to head down here. So there’ll be more attacks for a certainty until we can kill ‘em. I know the basilisks have done wonders, and we’ll see what happens with that spidren when she gets here, but tauroses I cannot abide.”

            He scowled ferociously, a sentiment Kel shared. She’d never been able to understand why any god would create beings whose sole purpose seemed to be raping mortal women, almost always fatally, and no-one she‘d met, even Numair, had an explanation either. Even stormwings, grotesque as they were, served a purpose and despite their stench and behaviour were a fiercely moral object lesson about the realities of war, however little humans heeded it. But tauroses were purely vile.

            “We’re also starting to see Scanran soldiers again north of the Vassa. No crossings reported yet but it’s only a matter of time. Maggot’s reasserted his grip, more or less. Had to do a lot of fast talking and kill at least one hostage, Sir Myles says, but if no-one’s happy about it they aren’t turning on him yet either. Whether he’ll be able to do more than raid before the snows is a toss-up, but for sure and certain he’ll be back in force in the spring, latest. So you keep right on fortifying for all you’re worth, Lady Knight. Sooner or later you’ll need these defences.”

            He ate with them that evening, listening as she updated everyone on tauros attacks and additional resources and soldiers, before giving a speech—brisk in praise of what had been achieved, unsparing in assessing continuing threats, and cheerfully blunt about how’d they’d be met. He left next morning for Northwatch, and before leaving himself for Mastiff, Wyldon, eyeing the state of barracks and stable, promised to send the remaining adult refugees, children, and livestock the following week, when Neal returned from leave.

            Then it was back to her developing routine, from dawn practice and renewed weapons drills with refugees to meals in the completed messhall where she came to know the soldiers of Company Eight better. She also had discussions with the basilisks, and after careful experimentation they found that Amiir’aan’s as yet low-powered rock spell, directed over a wider area, petrified only the upper quarter-inch or so of a one-inch wooden shingle. Thereafter he added the low-pitched roofs to his work-load, and the adult basilisks had no difficulty petrifying the supporting pillars to take the extra weight. The process spawned another activity, woodcarvers among refugees and building teams insisting the messhall be left for last and snatching time in the evenings to carve its pillars with simple, dramatic panels telling the tale of Haven’s fall, the rescue, and New Hope’s rise. Kel thought their depiction of her went beyond flattery to the absurd, but everyone was so pleased with the results, the refugees fiercely so, that she did her best to acquiesce with a smile.

            By the time August began with heavy showers the glacis was fully faced and the moat complete. It took a day to fill before the last section, below the gatehouse, brimmed and the overflow began trickling along a shallow sough to the Greenwoods, but everyone was happy with the results. Inner wall, gatehouse, and north tower with its bridge were also substantially complete, and the killing field between the walls studded with petrified spikes. St’aara and the party building roadway traps were reinforced, and men from the building teams released to the remaining barracks, internal structures of headquarters, and smaller buildings—forge, woodsheds, and latrines.

            News of a sizeable Scanran war band that all but besieged the soldiers working at Giantkiller until companies hastily despatched from Mastiff and Northwatch could drive them off with heavy casualties delayed the arrival of the promised column from Mastiff, but as the second week of August began horn-calls from one of Brodhelm’s patrols announced them. Kel had thought carefully about how to handle the children, and while Adner and others relieved Jump and the knowing dogs of bellowing, bleating, oinking, and clucking livestock, driving some up the roadway to pens prepared in the eastern corner of the main level and others to the corral beyond the fin, she had all the refugees, the knights, Connac’s squad, and the convict soldiers wait by the bridge over the moat. She spent a while greeting friends of all ages, hugging Tobe, patting Jump, and congratulating Uinse, self-conscious but proud and determined in a new uniform with captain’s insignia, and once the noise of the animals abated with distance raised her hand to command silence.

            Concentrating on children and dogs she gave graphic descriptions of the spikes concealed beneath the water of the moat and what they would do to anyone, two-or four-legged, who fancied a swim, then bluntly reminded women and girls about the tauros threat and laid out her standing orders about never being out of sight unless in strength and appropriately armed. Satisfied they’d absorbed the warnings, she hoisted a happy Meech to her side and walked them up the roadway, explaining the traps, emphasising the sheer drop on the outer side, and collecting the work party and St’aara as they passed. Meech peered shyly from behind her arm at the tall basilisk, and when she reached the gatehouse Kel set him down, sent the children to line up along the shelf,  and used the guards’ horn to stop the building work and call everyone together. Brodhelm and his sergeants, Geraint, Godfrey, and the basilisks were clearly named and layout demonstrated. Going the other way she introduced Irnai, known from her report and accompanied by the marmalade cat, with wry instructions that if anyone heard the seer say anything unusual they should pay serious attention. Then, as work resumed, she took the children and animals to the slope above the cave, assuring them they would soon be able to go in as they wished, but flatly commanding them that it was as yet unexplored and strictly off-limits.

            The rest of the day was filled with happy chaos as carts were unloaded, barrack spaces claimed, and the new stables filled with horses and ponies. The piping shouts and laughter of the young, even the squabbles that broke out, and the various barks were a welcome change to Kel’s ears, and next morning, with extra soldiers boosting Brodhelm’s resources and supplementing work parties, she decided she’d done enough latrine duty for a bit and switched to childcare. Creating rosters for older to watch younger, a familiar routine, and recruiting Amiir’aan to help break down fear of immortals, she set them to work digging out a large, shallow pit, roughly three hundred foot square, in the centre of the main level. Basilisk-loosened scree was carried away to be piled by the inner wall, until it could be strung up in nets from the outer, and the excavated pit was gradually filled with soil and turfed with sod claimed from the field beyond the fin that Adner’s teams had ploughed. One of Brodhelm’s patrols was instructed to find and bring back four sturdy saplings, birch, alder, rowan, and ash, to plant in deepened corners; in the middle, where diagonal paths intersected, a circle of raised rock eventually housed a great flagpole, rising above the walls to be visible from much of the valley floor, and her flag from Haven was set flying. Archery ranges and a play area with a low fence were also established between the south-eastern side of the green and the terrace.

            The arrival of Neal, Merric, and Seaver improved Kel’s daily life dramatically, adding a distributed command presence that eased her workload. Uinse consolidated authority over his new company, working with Merric and Brodner, while Seaver began working with Company Eight’s mages and the hedgewitches among the refugees, and Neal claimed his healer’s domain in the infirmary. The knights’ presence also brightened Kel’s evenings with old acquaintance uncompromised by social deference or appeal to authority. Neal bemoaned separation from Yuki as during their engagement, but Kel thought marriage—and, she admitted to herself, the marriage-bed—had begun to mellow him. He’d always been kind; now he was more tolerant and while still given to dramatics somehow more relaxed even when vapouring. If her own bed remained a lonely refuge, the installation of Tobe in a small room next to her quarters, and his delight in the first private space he’d ever had, were compensations beyond measure.

            There were also clerks, wonderful clerks, to inhabit the completed headquarters and begin generating the paperwork that made army quartermasters and senior sergeants happy and would ensure New Hope’s smooth integration into courier and resupply systems. The spellmirror, thus far unused, was installed in a conference room near Kel’s new and to her eye needlessly spacious quarters, beginning a duty of regular reports to Wyldon and occasional summons to receive news.

            Ten days into this new dispensation Kel was packing turf around the rowan sapling when a hawk screamed close above. Waving and trotting to the headquarters building she climbed to her rooms and threw open her bedroom shutters. As she set out small clothes on the bed with a shirt and breeches the hawk perched on the window sill, and a moment after she’d politely withdrawn to the outer room a tousled Daine emerged, buttoning her borrowed shirt.

            “Kel, I can’t believe how much has been done. It’s fair wonderful. But catching-up must wait. Quenuresh is here.”

            Kel’s heart beat fiercely. “Where?”

            “In that old woodland. I told her you’d come to meet her with a small party of military and civilian leaders.”

            “Right. Follow me.”

            She clattered down the stairs and strode out, Daine behind her. A passing Gydo was sent at the run to tell Adner to meet her at the moatbridge. Then she walked a quick circuit, collecting Brodhelm and Uinse for soldiers, Fanche and Saefas for refugees, Zerhalm for Scanrans, and prompted by a sudden impulse, Irnai for children; she also took Neal as senior healer, and Seaver, whose father had been killed by a spidren. She’d spent hours over the past week talking with him about the alliances she hoped to form, and what she knew of Quenuresh; he’d had to grit his teeth much as she had forcing herself to face her fear of heights, but had become grimly determined to overcome his visceral repugnance. The fact that she largely shared it helped him, and when the small group rode down the roadway to collect a waiting Adner he was immediately behind her, face set.

            The woodland was a good four miles beyond Haven, and it was more than an hour after Daine’s arrival before they approached its eaves, dark with shadow even in sunlight. No spidrens were visible, but Daine had them dismount and picket the horses a hundred yards from the trees, and as they walked forward put fingers to mouth and gave a piercing whistle. They halted ten yards from the treeline, Kel and Irnai in the centre, with Daine in front, Seaver and Neal flanking them, the soldiers and civilians on either side. After what seemed an eternity but wasn’t more than a minute shadows stirred under the trees and the biggest spidren Kel had ever seen stalked slowly out into the sunlight.

            Most of the octoped immortals, though as much as four feet in legspan, stood no taller than two to three feet at their bizarrely human heads. Quenuresh’s head was at least five foot from the ground, jointed legs rising above it, and her body twice the usual size. Yet her face, surprisingly attractive, was if tense also more open than Kel had ever seen, and without steel teeth on display infinitely less threatening. Behind her a dozen smaller spidrens, one with four young riding its back, emerged to spread themselves warily along the treeline.

            Kel could hear deep, ragged breaths from Neal and Seaver on either side of her, but Irnai was calm and Kel kept hold of her hand as she carefully advanced behind Daine, controlling trembling legs with sheer willpower. Halting bare yards from a very still Quenuresh, whose gaze flickered from face to face, Kel offered a dip of her head somewhere between a nod and short bow, and stood waiting. Quenuresh looked her in the eye for a long second, nostrils flaring, then awkwardly dipped her own head and body. Her voice was low, not unpleasant, and Kel realised with muted shock she’d only ever heard spidrens speak—or shout and scream—in combat and in agony.

            “Godborn, you keep your word. Protector of the Small, your fame has reached my ears. This girlchild is unknown to me but bears the marks of Shakith’s chosen. She is Irnai of Rathhausak?”

            “She is. Forgive me, but how should we address you?”

            “I am Quenuresh. I claim no title.”

            Kel swallowed. “I understand you and yours would live with us in peace, offering harm to none and claiming the King’s protection.”

            “We would. In the divine realms I was a mage and scholar, and would be so again. All of us are tired of warfare and killing.”

            “That I can understand, for so are we all. But I believe the war—”

            Kel broke off because Irnai was walking forward, stopping only feet from Quenuresh. Slowly her hand rose to touch the huge spidren’s cheek. Quenuresh was utterly still but the spidrens behind skittered as they watched, surprise on their faces; what her own might look like Kel couldn’t imagine. Letting her hand drop Irnai spoke, her voice distant.

            “Your cheek is soft. I see no futures where you harm us, spidren-mage, but hazard comes all the same. Will you aid us when it does?”

            “I and mine will defend ourselves, and you, against any who enter this valley, Shakith’s daughter. This we have sworn to the King of this land, to stay his swords and fire sent against us. But we will not fight in mortal wars beyond our own home.”

            “The Protector asks no more.”

            Forcing herself forward until she stood beside Irnai, well within the spidren’s killing reach, Kel met Quenuresh’s eyes.

            “Does Shakith’s daughter speak true, Protector of the Small?”

            Kel’s voice was calm despite her churning stomach. “She does, Quenuresh. On those terms you and yours are welcome to New Hope.” Generosity worked best, she thought. “Yet there is much we must determine. Wise animals live among us, lawful prey for none, and livestock we need to survive. Basilisks dwell here and we hope other immortals may come. You know of the Council at Dunlath?”

            “I do.”

            “Though command here is mine it is in my mind we should do likewise and one seat on that Council should be yours. Do you accept it?”

            Quenuresh studied her for a moment, not concealing surprise. “That is more than I expected. I accept gladly.”

            “We must also guard against misunderstandings and accidents.” Kel swallowed. “There are those among us who have lost dearly to your kind. And you can have few reasons to trust us.”

            Kel felt Seaver come to her side and sensed others’ tension behind her. A sidelong glance showed her a face sheened with sweat. His throat worked and when he spoke his voice was harsh.

            “I am Seaver of Tasride.” He swallowed convulsively. “A spidren killed my father.”

            Quenuresh studied him warily, nostrils flaring again. “I am sorry for your loss, Seaver of Tasride. I have never dwelt in that place, nor any of my get.” For the first time the immortal hesitated. “I understand we are monstrous in your eyes, and I smell the fear in all save the Godborn and Shakith’s daughter. Yet you approach despite it, restraining your sword and Gift, and we speak as your father and that one of my kind who slew him never could. If it does not offend, I would honour your courage. And we have sorrows of our own, beyond counting, learned at mortal hands.”

            Kel laid a gentle hand on Seaver’s arm. “We understand, Quenuresh. It is our hope that your children and ours may be free of such sorrows, but we must be cautious if all are to prosper. Forgive my ignorance, but can spidrens sound a horn?”

            “We can.”

            “Then we will place one at the edge of your woodland, and should we need to speak with you, or you with us, its summons will be heeded. If a child of either kind were lost, and needed to be searched for, perhaps, or other aid were needed.” Quenuresh nodded and Kel swallowed again. “Will you also consider trading with us? I do not know what we might have that you need, nor what of yours we could use. But trust cannot grow in isolation.”

            Daine came to rest a hand on Irnai’s shoulder. “We discussed this a bit, Kel.” Her voice was dry. “Exchanges are certainly possible.”

            To everyone’s surprise a smile lit Quenuresh’s face, though a glimpse of steel teeth made it less reassuring that it might have been.

            “They are, Godborn. We hunt, but if we are not to trespass on your lands we need livestock, or to trade for food. Meat, but also cheese.”

            “Cheese?

            “You heard right, Kel. Cheese.” Daine let a smile show. “Seems spidrens have a taste for it but aren’t equipped to make it themselves.”

            “In return, we offer webwork and our ability to climb.”

            Kel’s fist clenched. Yes. “That is more than acceptable.” Amid her satisfaction she felt whimsy rise. “We must devise a cheese schedule.”

            Quenuresh nodded, eyes alight. “And one for webwork, Protector. I had hoped spidren web would appeal to one who must defend many.”

            “Oh it does, Quenuresh. It does.”

            Neal came to her other side, white but with a look suggesting he might be laughing about cheese later, and the spidren turned to him.

            “I am Nealan of Queenscove, Quenuresh.”

            Dark eyes studied him and nostrils flared. “You are the healer of Shakith’s daughter’s prophecy.” It wasn’t a question.

            “I am. I can also firespeak, though not over great distance. Seaver has lightcraft, and some training in warmagery. And you are a mage. Can you tell me in what your power lies?”

            “You ask much, Nealan of Queenscove, though you offer trust even as you ask it.” The immortal’s face was very still, no trace of humour remaining. “I know to hold this back would deny trust, yet it galls to speak it. Still, it must be. Beyond my webbing, I can speak over distance, not by fire, and when the barriers are thin, between realms. But my true power is of illusion and concealment.” She neither moved nor made any visible gesture, but faded swiftly where she stood into invisibility for a second and then returned. “Even as the dragons, I can move unseen through a city, and have done so.”

            The demonstration alarmed Neal and Seaver, and Kel could hear shocked breathing behind her, but she’d guessed from what Daine said that Quenuresh must be able to conceal herself and her kin effectively, and magecraft was the obvious answer. Calmly she took her griffin headband from her pouch and bound it over eyes and ears.

            “Would you repeat that spell, Quenuresh, staying invisible longer?”

            Slowly the spidren nodded, nostrils again flaring. “Yes. The virtue of the griffins I cannot wholly defeat, but I will do as you ask.”

            She faded again but to Kel’s sight an outline remained, the invisible body blocking woodland behind. She undid the band and passed it to Neal, then Seaver, summoning Brodhelm, Uinse, Fanche, and Saefas forward for turns. Irnai declined, smiling, and Quenuresh reappeared.

            “Well, Protector?”

            Kel made her voice brisk. “It is well, Quenuresh. We have comfort in the griffins’ virtue and you know of it. Yet I would ask your oath that you never seek to pass invisibly within New Hope without our knowledge.”

            The spidren looked at her curiously. “You would trust an immortal’s word, Protector? We have no gods to swear by who will bind us as the Great Gods bind mortals.”

            “I would trust your word, Quenuresh.”

            “Then you have it. And likewise, no mortal mage shall seek to enter our wood unseen.”

            “Agreed.”

            Swiftly Kel named Brodhelm and Uinse as captains, Fanche, Saefas, Adner, and Zerhalm as civilian leaders. Quenuresh nodded gravely to each, repeating names, and studied Zerhalm closely, nostrils flaring.

            “Zerhalm of Rathhausak, you have the Gift to heal animals, though not as the Godborn does.”

            He blinked. “I don’t rightly know the Godborn’s powers but that sounds about right.”

            “It is possible you might also heal us, for that is a magic we lack. Should need arise, are you willing to attempt it?”

            Kel had not anticipated this and looked at Zerhalm anxiously, but as he overcame his surprise he shrugged.

            “I’ve never healed a spider, never mind a spidren. Never tried, nor had the chance. But I’ll leave no animal in pain if I can help, and I can’t see I’d refuse to help one that was hurt, less’n you’d given me reason.”

            “I ask no more, and offer thanks.” Quenuresh looked at Kel. “The young of every kind are vulnerable to injury. Shall I name my kin?”

            As the other spidrens slowly came forward and were introduced, emotions eased. All were Quenuresh’s children or grandchildren, and all were female. What had become of the males no-one asked, but Seaver, still trembling, did ask the other question in everyone’s mind and to Kel’s relief Quenuresh only smiled slightly.

            “No, Seaver of Tasride, it is not with us as with mortals, passing down generations. If they live to number my centuries they will attain my size. But no mortal now living will see it, nor the children of their children’s children.”

            “How old are you, then?”

            Quenuresh smiled again. “I have more centuries than you have years, Nealan of Queenscove, and the youngest here fewer months.” She gestured carefully with a foreleg to the spidrens less than a foot across who clung solemnly to their mother’s back, eyes wide.

            After her conversations with Tkaa and Daine Kel wasn’t surprised, but others were, mouths opening in shock, and she thought everyone had had enough surprises for one day. After agreeing with Quenuresh to meet the following morning, bringing the horn, she made a formal farewell, receiving the same, and the spidrens vanished under the trees. Kel didn’t think it was magic but how such a huge creature could be so easy to lose sight of was a mystery. As they reached the horses Seaver let out explosive breath and leaned against his mount’s side, face grey.

            “Gods, that was hard!”

            “You did it, though. And came to no harm.” Daine’s voice was mild. “Spidren or not, she’s brave and honourable. I used to hate and fear stormwings because the only one I knew truly was a monster. But then I met one who died fighting alongside us at Port Legann, and he was one of the best beings I’ve ever known. He still stank worse than a midden, but now I judge every being as I find them, not kind by kind.”

            Seaver nodded weakly. “I don’t disagree, Wildmage, but I can’t stop what my gut feels.”

            Kel knew he would not be the only one. Her own nausea wasn’t far away, and she didn’t look forward to renewed contact with Quenuresh on the morrow. The matted hair and sharp bristles on her high-jointed legs were as repellent as Kitten and Amiir’aan were attractive, and Kel could not shake the vivid memory of another spidren biting a kitten in half. But she also remembered her sick distress hearing baby spidrens burning to death in caves bombed with blazebalm, and would not ignore any safe alternative to such slaughter. And above all, whatever her fears or anyone’s, she knew that with Quenuresh and her brood holding the woodland and the promise of webbing to bolster New Hope’s defences however proved possible, her people were safer tonight than last, and that was all that truly counted.

Chapter Text

Part II – Mabon  

September – November, 461 HE

 


 

Chapter Five — Visitations

1–24 September

 

The remaining men of the building teams left at the beginning of September. Most had gone to Giantkiller a week before but the heavy gatehouse roof and multiple switchback stairways to the railed alures of the inner wall required specialists, and Geraint had stayed with them. Kel liked the man and would miss his good cheer but waved farewell with a light heart, glad to begin New Hope’s independent life.

            Civil and military routines were already established. Everyone trained with arms before breakfast and for an hour before the evening meal; fieldwork and replacing things lost with Haven occupied the refugees’ days, while Brodhelm and Uinse had sparrow- and dog-aided patrols ranging widely afield, as well as an intense programme to train convict soldiers to regular army standards. Neal was working through the men of New Hope Company One, in private occasionally exploding at evidence of unhealed injuries and untreated disease but doing much to nurture the liking and trust Kel’s fairness had seeded.

            In the mornings children went to the schoolhouse where a surprised but willing St’aara kept order and two clerks ensured all could read, write, and do basic maths. To his mingled disgust and delight Tobe was among them. Other lessons depended on who was free and what they could think of, but between them Neal, Seaver, Faleron, Esmond, an infinitely mellowed Idrius Valestone, Saefas, and Kel herself were gradually covering Tortall’s geography and history, neighbouring lands, healing and the body, magecraft, animal care, tracking and hunting, trade and business, and making and reading maps. Kel ruthlessly recruited for occasional lessons—cooks, seamstresses, hedgewitches, smiths, a shocked Uinse for moral tales of what not to do (or at least, how not to be caught doing it), and a bashful Connac, whose hobby was drawing. For some children it was a first experience of education and for most a welcome return to something that if not normal was at least ordered and dependable.

            Relations with Quenuresh prospered. A round of cheese was delivered to the wood weekly, with meat when they slaughtered or caught enough game, while folded web-nets, spelled to be handled by mortals, were lodged in boxes along the alures. The first time Quenuresh entered New Hope the atmosphere was as tense as bearing cable, some people fainting and others unable to stop themselves vomiting; only Irnai and the basilisks yet felt remotely at ease with the giant immortal but when no-one was harmed and Quenuresh was unfailingly polite, as well as visibly working to bolster defences, fear and revulsion were slowly joined by acceptance and traces of strange pride. No-one else had spidren allies and all knew their experiment was of real importance. It was helpful that Amiir’aan, whom everyone liked, had no fear whatever of the spidren; nor, more oddly, did Jump or the sparrows. Kel herself had come to appreciate her strange ally’s mind and conversation, though her stomach still had its own opinion about proximity to a huge, hairy body and bristled legs.

            To Kel’s disappointment it had not proved practical to suspend rocks from the merlons using spidren web. It would decay over time, and were Quenuresh to be killed all her webbing would rapidly fail. Grumpily Kel set the older children to work knotting ropes and the younger to carrying rocks excavated from the central square up to the outer alures; once the filled nets were securely in place (with mageblasts to blow them open at need) Quenuresh won her renewed gratitude by crawling along the outer wall, cloaking each net in spells that left them invisible from below.

            A different satisfaction came from work on the shrines. The adult basilisks spellcut arched niches in the limestone of the shallow bay and the best seven woodcarvers, dragged away from increasingly elaborate decoration of the messhall, held Kel’s commission for statues. Lords Mithros, Gainel, and Sakuyo would all be honoured, with the Goddess, Shakith, and the Black God; in the centre a double-width niche would hold a double statue of Lord Weiryn and the Green Lady. When Kel had asked Daine by spellmirror for her approval and whether the wedded gods should be shown holding hands, the Wildmage had laughed until her face was wet, assuring her that not only would her Ma and Da be delighted to hold hands, but that any god had the right and power to attend dedications to Themselves and if they didn’t show up for this one, especially with the barriers thin on the equinox, she’d ring down such a scold on them her Da’s horns would curl. Sobering, she’d added in a quieter voice that it would be her Ma’s first major shrine, and her Da had only a few scattered through the northern mountains of Tortall, Scanra, and Galla, small-scale work by woodsmen and their families, so both would likely have a strong proprietary interest. Kel still found a daughter’s irreverence for gods disconcerting but also felt without quite being able to say it that humour was a better companion for faith than either the fear she associated with the Chamber or the profound unease manifestations of divine power usually induced.

            The only real puzzle remaining was the cave. The basilisks had explored as far as they could, discovering a network of small chambers stretching away into the limestone but in every case finding the way blocked by cracks and passages too small even for Amiir’aan to pass, yet with air movement whispering of further connections. They had begun leisurely excavations but more, Kel thought, as a recreation than a task.

            That situation changed with the harvest moon when an extended family of aqua-skinned ogres hesitantly climbed the roadway to request shelter. Miners displaced from further east, peaceful, reserved, and roughly polite, they had been living under treaty since the Immortals’ War and Kel had no hesitation in accepting them and offering their leader, Kuriaju, a Council seat. There were abandoned mines in nearby valleys they could work when peace came; meantime they brought greater drive to exploration of the caves, stringing crystal magelights, levelling floors, and beginning to create useful spaces and open up some passages to discover what lay beyond. Kel also set Var’istaan and Kuriaju to work on a gallery in the fin, extending the alure of the inner wall at a right angle above the upper roadway. In the hard rock progress was slow, even with basilisk spells and ogre muscle, but well-sheltered firing positions covering the gates from a new angle were worth it.

            A few days after the ogres arrived a small herd of centaurs took up residence in the upper valley, pasturing horses on the grassland, living in the woods, and keeping themselves to themselves but agreeing, like Quenuresh, to fight anyone who brought war to New Hope. Their herdmaster, Whitelist, brusquely declined a place on any council, but when he saw the fine bowls and jars made by petrifying turned wood became keen to trade, offering griffin-fletched arrows and to Kel’s astonishment others in which ridged golds and coppers alternated with the metallic sheen of stormwing retrices. Such arrows were magekillers, and several dozen of each kind now resided in cases along the parapets, while week by week the reserve of broadheads and needlepoints with charmed fletching grew.

            The tally of immortals was completed soon afterwards when a tired Daine arrived one afternoon, again in hawk form, followed by a ringing cry that brought everyone out to see two huge brindled forms spiralling down to the green; between them a smaller version landed awkwardly and promptly trotted towards Kel. Ignoring Jump’s wary growl from a safe distance it reached her as Daine emerged from the headquarters building at a run, and when she knelt warily booted her knee and made a snap at her hand she barely avoided.

            “Oy! Little monster.”

            “Yes, he still is.” Daine’s breathless voice was amused. “But for a griffin that was affection all the same, Kel.”

            “Sure it was. And I’m glad to see him, I suppose.” She whipped out a hand to pluck an errant feather from the kit’s side, avoiding his reflex snap. “Got you. You’ll have to speed up.” The kit booted her knee again as she glanced up at Daine. “What’s the deal?”

            “They’ll roost for at least two years in one of the cliff caves and prevent anyone from gaining access to the cliff tops above here, but they won’t fight. They’ll give you feathers when they moult and the male says they’ll put griffin magic into the gate-lintel, if you’d like. It will reveal anyone who tries to enter under an illusion spell, and it’s much stronger than the feather-bands you use.”

            That was an offer Kel had no hesitation accepting, wondering what would be needed in return, but to her surprise Daine shook her head.

            “They don’t want anything, Kel. He says they recognise their debt to you and feel better offering something to repay it.”

            “Coming here at all more than repays it, Daine, and there’s the feathers as well.”

            “They don’t see it like that. They were about to move anyway and like the idea of river-fish for a while. And they couldn’t care less about moulted feathers. Just let them do it and they’ll get to cave-hunting.”

            Walking up to the gates in front of two adult griffins with the kit trotting beside her, Jump circling warily, and everyone except the duty watch at a respectful distance was one of the oddest experiences Kel could remember. Realising the crowd could be a problem with magic being done she swung round briefly to direct people to the outer alure, gatehouse roof, and what there was of the gallery in the fin, then resumed her escort. The adult griffins sensed the pit-trap in the barbican roadway, bounding over it, and turned to study the building from outside. Kel and Daine went to the road edge, safely out of the way, and shortly the kit scampered away from his parents to join them. With the palisades lined with excited faces, the adult griffins reared tall on their hind legs, wings flapping, and directed ringing shrieks at lintel and gateposts that made the stone glow bright copper before slowly fading. Even as it did an eagle eye and beak clap summoned the kit, who again booted Kel’s leg before trotting back to his parents, and all three griffins launched themselves off the outer edge of the roadway, spiralling up to begin flying slowly along the cliffs.

            Kel drew the first breath she remembered for a while. “That’s it?”

            “Yes. One Honesty Gate, all done.”

            “Honesty Gate?”

            “So Numair says. He’s excited and when next here will doubtless crawl all over it. They’re mentioned in old Carthaki books but this is now the first he knows of since griffins returned to the mortal realms.”

            Kel would have liked to hear more but Daine couldn’t stay. Quenuresh, however, aware of the griffins’ magic, came to test the spell. A wagon was placed just outside the gate, wheels wedged with blocks of stone against the steep slope, and while people watched from inside and outside the gate the spidren mage laid illusion spells on it. Those outside saw a procession of things appear—a shed, a lowing bullock, a huge boulder, and a tawny griffin—while those inside saw a wagon doing nothing at all. The experience of stepping out of the gate and back, wagon and illusion playing tag, was altogether disconcerting, as was the discovery that once under the lintel no-one, human or immortal, could tell even the whitest lie. The evident virtue of the Honesty Gate delighted everyone, but to Kel, recalling what she had once seen at Haresfield, as to Brodhelm and other veterans who also knew that gates were more often breached by treachery than assault, it was reassurance beyond price. Very much Commander Kel, she laid down standing orders that any and all non-residents arriving, of whatever kind or importance, must state their names and purposes standing under the lintel, with a declaration that they intended no harm of any sort to place or people.

            Thinking carefully that evening about what she’d done she contacted Wyldon at Mastiff, explained, garnering another surprised head-shake, and asked him to relay a request to Prince Roald—whose marriage had taken place the week before and should even now be half-way to New Hope with the new Princess Shinkokami of Conté and a retinue including Yuki and the Archpriest of Mithros. They were due on Mabon morning, and if (Kel argued) the Crown Prince and Princess were willingly to obey her standing order, a precedent would be set no-one could ignore. Wyldon took her point and, if yet again astonished, agreed to pass her request along.

            The next evening, making her scheduled monthly report to General Vanget, she was told Roald and Shinko had agreed at once. Smiling and shaking his head much as Wyldon had, Vanget commended her initiative warmly and said he’d make sure any officers he sent her way, of whatever rank or nobility, would know they were expected to comply without fuss. Evidently curious, he asked her to list her standing orders, and when she did from memory offered further praise and requested a copy be sent with her next written report.

            “You’ve some good wrinkles in that lot, Lady Knight. I’ve already adopted your tauros-threat rule of fives and pole arms, and that one about sentry rotation during shifts is interesting.” His face darkened. “There’ve been two more tauros attacks, by the way, west of here, so they’re heading your way.”

            “So noted, sir. I’ll reinforce my warnings to women and girls.”

            “Mm. And yourself, Lady Knight. In this you are also at specific risk. Blasted things. Now, what else was I … oh. Yes. Some unhappy news, I’m afraid.” Vanget looked down uneasily before meeting her eyes again and Kel’s stomach muscles tautened. “It’s nothing personal, Lady Knight, it’s just … it’s your yearmate Sir Quinden, Keladry.”

            Her heart sank at news and name. “What of him, sir?”

            His glance was keen. “Just Vanget, in this, if you will. Wyldon told me you’re on first-name terms so I’m bothered if I’ll stand on ceremony. Anyway, you rightly reported Sir Quinden’s slovenly behaviour on patrol and Wyldon reprimanded him. He didn’t mention you, of course, but given where that patrol was and publication of your report it wasn’t hard for him to guess who he hadn’t seen and he became grossly insubordinate. Wyldon transferred him to Northwatch for a last chance, which he’s failed to take.” He drew a deep breath. “I gave him two opportunities to improve but he’s a piss-poor excuse for a knight and a worse officer. I won’t risk men under him any more, so I dismissed him this morning.”

            “You dismissed him?”

            “Sent him back to Corus with a note recommending he be denied any further service and ordering he never have command of men. But the thing is … well, he blamed you, and swore you’d regret what he called blabbing. I thought you should know.”

            Kel stared, mind boiling, and found words she hadn’t intended spilling from her lips. “I’d send a copy of that note separately if you want it to arrive.”

            “What? You think he’d—”

            “Quinden of Marti’s Hill will do anything he thinks it his right to do. As a page he could never play fair and I don’t suppose he’ll start now.”

            He looked at her bleakly. “Right you are, Keladry. I’ll see it’s done. Gods. The Chamber ought to catch someone like that.”

            Her own look was bleak. “I prefer Kel. And the Chamber tests only for courage and a degree of flexibility. I know this is pushing a limit, but it imposes desperation, yes? You can’t do anything as everyone dies?”

            “Pretty much.” He looked at her with respect. “You have got guts, haven’t you?”

            She ignored him, though something in her revelled in his praise. “What the Chamber doesn’t do is tempt. If it had made Quinden king of all the world, with every woman and child helpless before him to do with as he would, it might have seen more truly.”

            There was a long silence before Vanget sighed. “Kel, eh? Very well. That’s a fearsome mind you have there, you know.” His face creased in a mirthless grin. “I heard from Numair about your advice to the king. And you were right about how we were thinking of the Chamber. But I don’t think His Majesty’s had any chats with it yet, though I believe Numair did manage a few words.” He thought hard for a moment. “This matters, Kel. Would you be prepared to talk to it again?”

            “Certainly.” She shrugged, though she didn’t feel that way. “But it’s always been me getting instructions, never the other way round.”

            “I don’t think that matters. I’d just like to know it’s aware of the problem.”

            “It’s not new, Vanget.” When his eyebrows lifted she spoke flatly. “Ansil of Groten. Arknor of Groten. Voelden of Tirrsmont. Belar of Heathercove. Guisant of Torhelm. Given the chance to kill me without consequences every one of them would take it. Others too. Tirrsmont tried to run me through during a joust, and Guisant once said to my face I should be raped to death and thrown on the nearest midden.” His face was pale; she had no idea what her own might look like. “If the test were chivalry, not brute courage and sufficient cunning, not one of them would have left the Chamber alive.”

            “Gods. What an indictment.” He again dropped his gaze, then lifted it painfully to meet her own. “Can’t deny any of it though. You name the most unpleasant knights of the last twenty years. Don’t know any of ’em that well but they all have vile reputations. Torhelm’s a compulsive womaniser by all accounts, like Runnerspring, and Tirrsmont’s no better than his father. I heard about him trying to run you through. Wyldon was livid. Went on about it for weeks. So did the Queen, and the Lioness went the same colour as her eyes. You really think Sir Quinden’s of that stripe?”

            “At page camp he was always trying to sneak up on me at the female latrines, and not just for some mucky thrill. What he wanted was a woman unawares and in no position to fight. And he’s a pincher. My maid at the Palace told me a dozen women at least got bruised cheeks from him, and sometimes worse. He also thinks spitting’s a clever remark.”

            “Gods.” A look of extreme distaste very like Wyldon’s occupied Vanget’s face. “Alright. I’ll discuss it with the King but I bet he’ll think it should be you who talks to the Chamber. I don’t imagine you want to leave New Hope, but even without this matter he’ll want you in Corus for Midwinter.” He raised a hand. “No good protesting to me. Think about it. I would in his shoes, and not just for this or to hear about your Scanran adventure firsthand. There’s Quenuresh and all your other immortals, and the visit next week. Other things too.”

            “Mmph.” Kel fulminated briefly but could see the inevitability of what Vanget said and came to a swift decision. “Humour me a moment. What’s the general picture, along the front and in Hamrkeng?”

            Vanget quirked heavy eyebrows but played along. “Stalemate mostly, while Maggur’s rebuilding. The armies investing Frasrlund and the City of the Gods are still there, and raiding parties continue west and east, though since your exploit and smashing up that little army in June they seem to be avoiding us between here and Steadfast. Wolfships hit some villages round Seabeth and Seajen, but the coast’s been quieter than we’d feared. Meantime Maggur’s pulling together another army, with every man he can rustle up—mostly from fiefs and clans in the far north, we think, where he’s taken more hostages.”

            “Do you expect to have to fight this year?”

            “It’s possible, but I’m thinking spring.”

            “So nothing over the winter?”

            “Not unless something very odd happens to the snow. You know no-one can move far after Samhain.”

            “I do, but if I have to go to Corus—and the other knights as well, probably—I’m still going to ask you to make sure that second regular company is here by the time we go. Brodhelm’s good, and Uinse’s doing very well, but the convicts still have a way to go, and even with all those men we depend on civilians to make up numbers on the parapets and for most of the support work.”

            “Mmm. Nothing’s likely to happen, Kel.”

            “I know but I’m uneasy. If I was a man I’d say I felt it in my water. And unless the snow’s very bad giants can move. Tauroses too.”

            “Point. Alright, I’ll do my best. I can’t see any real force moving in winter but I respect your unease. It was justified last time. And you’re right immortals might manage what men can’t.” He made another note. “Now, unless there’s anything else I must go.”

            Kel wasn’t happy about having to winter in Corus but couldn’t realistically do more and knew her fears of disaster in her absence—because of her absence—were more nightmare than reason. Mulling it over, she pressed Wulfric and Leoten, the Company Eight warmages, to make more mageblasts and with Var’istaan’s help a work party rigged blazebalm bombs at fifteen-foot intervals along the roadway. Small kegs were set in hollows in the bonded rock, packed round with coarse gravel and concealed by petrified squares of the thinnest wood carpenters could produce. Others were scattered through the killing field between the walls. The whole business was nasty, inducing acute distaste in Kel as much as Brodhelm, Uinse, and the knights, but it was another defence that didn’t rely on manpower and she would not pass up any advantage.

            Kel’s good humour was restored two mornings later, when the ogres working in the cave broke through a larger crack to find a substantial chamber—deep, wide, and very high-roofed, reaching up perhaps two hundred feet. It was another useful space, but what really pleased her was the secret it disclosed as day wore on—a dim patch, almost at the top, that was indisputably sunlight. Politely asked for help, with a proffer of additional game, Quenuresh sent one of her kin to clamber up, silver claws biting into the rock, and drop a web-ladder for Kuriaju’s smallest son to climb bearing ropes and spikes. It took a while, but before sunset Kel knew that with a slight scramble and squeeze there was a way through to the cliff-face, just above a jutting lobe of rock that hid the opening from the ground. The ogre managed to lob a painted pebble over the edge, and they found it on the terrace between the shrines and livestock pens.

            Sitting that evening with basilisks, ogres, and the dozen miners among the Tirrsmont refugees Kel described what she wanted—a look-out post, big enough for two people, safely parapetted, with a vantage over the valley far better than gatehouse or north tower could offer. Forewarned was forearmed, and from that height it should be possible to see any movement on the track that ran to the Northwatch road long before it would be visible elsewhere. Limestone was far easier than the harder fin to spellcut or cleave with crude force, and the following day work began on a slanting passageway that would spiral up to the space that admitted daylight. It would take time, but by evening Kel could contemplate a dozen feet of twisting excavation opening another dimension of her command.

 

* * * * *

 

Neal knew privately from Yuki what was in the wind, but how to prepare New Hope for Roald and Shinko without anyone realising they were coming was a puzzle that occupied Kel for half-a-day before she realised it was simple. All the statues she’d commissioned were done except Lord Weiryn and his Green Lady, that carver having abandoned hand-holding in favour of a less challenging pose. His second attempt had the divine couple with inner arms around one another and outer ones outstretched, Weiryn holding a bow, the Green Lady the spiral emblem of the Goddess-as-mother, and Kel goosed the man into renewed efforts by announcing at dinner that she’d managed to secure a senior divine to dedicate the shrines at Mabon. After she’d remarked that besides innate respect due a priest he’d be New Hope’s first non-military visitor no-one was surprised to hear she wanted everything spick and span. The next days saw brooms and paintbrushes wielded, armour scoured, and heavy traffic at bathhouses and laundry. Guest rooms in headquarters and the barracks that remained unoccupied were also spruced up.

            Refugees and soldiers alike were keen on the shrines, knowing  Irnai was god-touched and those who’d been at Rathhausak with Kel, like the Scanrans, were convinced she’d had divine blessings on her mission. Respect for Lord Mithros and the Goddess needed no explanation and Shakith was accounted for by Irnai, but Kel was asked by many about her unusual choice of other gods to honour. Each time she said simply that Lord Gainel had sent visions of Blayce to guide her, necromancy offended against the Black God, and if it were not for the Godborn’s gift to Haven of knowing animals no-one would have been rescued at all, adding a thought about the advantages of good hunting and safe childbed. About Lord Sakuyo she said only she’d grown up in the Yamani Isles respecting their trickster god and didn’t propose to stop now.

            Those who’d seen Daine magicking animals at Haven accepted Kel’s explanation without demur, and newer arrivals who’d seen the Wildmage in hawk-form agreed she was more than a mage. Quite a few were roundly unconvinced of Daine’s supposed parentage even so, the notion that the Green Lady had been an unwed Gallan peasant mother until she was murdered by bandits eleven years ago being neither sensible nor respectable, but the practical advantages of better game and midwifery appealed even to them. Kel didn’t mention Daine had promised more astonishing guests than a priest or even a Crown Prince and Princess—an idea that still seemed absurd to her—but did spend time with the carver as he finished up and was relieved to see the results were rather good, even in the delicate matter of divinely loving expressions.

            On the morning of Mabon eve Kel did two things, the first to put her foot down about the messhall. The panels telling Haven’s and New Hope’s story had long been finished, but the woodworkers had become addicted to pillar-decorating and every exposed wooden surface that could be reached now sported vines, animal heads, images of resident immortals, and abstract patterns. Declaring it complete at breakfast to groans of protest she called on the amused basilisks, who spent the morning transforming load-bearing pillars and beams not into the rough grey stone of walls and gatehouse but a smooth crystalline rock so fine it was translucent, in colours from sunset red to forest green. Kel thought the results looked good, children were entranced, and everyone else happy or not saying otherwise. Amiir’aan then set about the roof and by evening the fire-arrow-proofing of New Hope was complete.

            The second thing was to collect the escort required by her standing orders, ride Hoshi briskly up to Spidren Wood, and blow the horn. It was only a few minutes before a smaller spidren emerged cautiously from the trees, but took longer for Quenuresh to be summoned. Apologising for the late notice and honestly pleading security concerns Kel told the immortal what would be happening on the morrow and formally invited her and all her kin to attend. Quenuresh hadn’t been especially interested in the dedication of shrines, though she approved of one to Weiryn, whom she said in a dry voice was helpful as gods went, but a Tortallan royal in the direct line was another matter. Sceptical all the same of what cheer seventeen spidrens might add to mortal festivities, she agreed they would come to New Hope in the morning. Kel asked her to relay word to the griffins, with whom she alone, save Daine, could communicate directly, and she promised with a half-smile to do so but took leave to doubt they’d be any more interested in royals than she was in gods. Kel tended to agree, but hoped anyway.

            She spent the afternoon in a tour of inspection, warning the head cook he should expect a larger high-table next day than anticipated, as well as catering for extra guests whose number made his eyes widen before narrowing in calculation. Grinning, she told him to keep his suspicions quiet, authorised additional hunting parties, and continued through barns, infirmary, schoolhouse, cave, barracks, and stables before starting on gatehouse and walls. With the weather set fair, though the air was noticeably cooler, she let the children decorate and watched as bunting was strung and bright streamers fixed around the trunks of the four saplings.

            After an evening meal dominated by people getting up to peer at some colourful bit of carving Kel called her captains and knights, with St’aara, Var’istaan, Kuriaju, Fanche, Saefas, Adner, Zerhalm, and Irnai to the headquarters’ briefing room and told them who was coming. Neal was smug, others surprised, impressed, pleased, and in Uinse’s case dumbstruck, and they went over arrangements Kel had drawn up as soon as she’d had confirmation of the visit. Squads were sent to finish preparing barracks accommodation, and a roster for standing guards (and guides) for important guests was drawn up. Kel anticipated no trouble, but knew the surest way to invite it was to leave things undone that might be taken care of beforehand, and after running again through her mental checklist spent a dreamless night.

            The arrival not long after dawn of Wyldon with an escort squad drew thoughtful looks, particularly from those who saw him quietly but warmly greet Lady Kel, unobtrusively seek hot food, and subsequently keep out of everyone’s way, entertaining Jump while hovering around the gatehouse. The arrival in mid-morning of the spidrens caused more unease, lessening as to everyone’s relief (and Kel’s private satisfaction at good planning) they settled on the central grassed square and were joined by ogres and basilisks for what looked like a good immortal gossip. The royal visitors were coming by the Great North Road and had camped overnight where it crossed the Greenwoods, so it wasn’t much later when horn-calls followed by an excited patroller announced their presence. An experienced soldier born in Corus, he had recognised not only the royals but the Archpriest of Mithros, Master Numair, and Tkaa, as well as the flying fossil Bonedancer (who had nearly caused a riot when first exploring the city’s markets but since become a popular sight). Word spread like magic and by the time the visitors passed the fin, collectively blinking astonishment at New Hope’s towering glacis and walls, and reorganised to climb the narrow roadway, the outer alure, gatehouse roof, and every possible vantage point were packed. Even the arrival of the griffins, spiralling down with ringing cries to sit with the other immortals, caused only a brief stir.

            Roald and Shinko led the column up, holding hands and looking to Kel’s eye purely delighted to be married at last if astonished by what they were seeing. They wore fine but practical riding clothes, in Shinko’s case a split skirt over sturdy leggings, and were followed by the elderly but spry Archpriest, robed in orange and yellow, Numair in black, Daine in an elegant tunic and breeches holding Kitten’s paw, and Lindhall Reed in red with Bonedancer perched on his arm. Behind them came a court party, including Yuki in an outfit like Shinko’s, Tkaa, and to Kel’s delighted astonishment both her parents in formal Mindelan colours. Their faces were Yamani masks but when their eyes met hers the leap of pride in her was evident and shy happiness bubbled in her breast. And behind the court party trailed a body of servants and the five squads of the Own’s Second Company who hadn’t been to Steadfast in July.

            Orchan’s turn, narrow, and rise was excellent for making attack more difficult and did just the same for friendlier approaches, so Kel went out to meet them, flanked by Brodhelm in dress maroons and Wyldon, whose public subordination to her in her command did not go unnoticed. Stopping a few feet up the rise, to leave herself clearly visible to all on roadway and alures, Kel bowed and formally welcomed the Crown Prince and Princess with Archpriest Holloran and all the guests, thanking them for the honour they did New Hope and introducing Brodhelm; Wyldon they knew. Roald’s eyes glinted with humour as he replied, also pitching his voice to carry.

            “Lady Knight Commander, Captain Brodhelm, Lord Wyldon, the honour is ours.” He offered Kel a hand, and Cricket her cheek to kiss. “My wife and I have heard much of your valour, Lady Knight, and of New Hope, including the wonder of your Honesty Gate.”

            On cue Kel explained with careful brevity and clarity her standing rule, and the royal couple came beneath the lintel to state their names and declare sincere good wishes for New Hope’s safety and prosperity. Archpriest, mages, basilisk, and court party followed in order, though Kel could see Daine restraining Numair from an evident desire to leave aside formalities and start examining the gate. Perhaps fortunately, he was distracted when Bonedancer, still on Lindhall’s arm, briefly glowed a deep copper colour when carried under the lintel, to its jaw-clattering and Kitten’s warbling delight, and Numair fell instead to speculating about interference between divine and immortals spells.

            Though everyone was co-operating in the staged performance it took time, and within the shadow of the barbican Kel was able to greet her parents properly, her father’s bearhug and moist eyes testimony to the more jagged emotions he’d felt on her behalf since she’d last seen him. Roald and Shinko seized the chance to ask her if Quenuresh was present, looked anxious when told she was, and sighed relief on learning all New Hope’s immortals were well within and the only immediate greetings would be of mortal commanders.

            When the important guests were through Kel led them to the shelf where the knights, Uinse, Fanche, Saefas, Adner, Zerhalm, and Irnai waited in their best. Bows and curtsies were received, kind words murmured, and hands shaken, royals warmly gracious and commoners surprised at their easy manners and deeply intrigued by Shinko. For Zerhalm and Irnai there were formal welcomes to Tortall in King Jonathan’s name, extending to all Scanran-born refugees and pitched to carry to the crowd building around them as people streamed down from the alure. Daine and Numair were familiar faces but Kitten’s decision to mindspeak greetings startled and pleased everyone, though Bonedancer received sidelong looks. Neal’s and Yuki’s embrace was greeted with laughing cheer and interested stares, while Kel’s parents, to her mingled pride and embarrassment, were received with fierce pleasure by all New Hopers; if Fanche stopped short of thanking them for conceiving her it wasn’t by much and the enthusiastic applause left Kel flushed. Seeing over massed heads below the shelf the griffin kit and Amiir’aan solemnly nose-to-nose, the basilisk with a spidren youngling clinging to his back, it was, she decided, high time to deal with immortals.

            She led the guests down to the main level and the crowd parted to clear their way. Roald and Shinko both gulped as they saw how large Quenuresh was, and Archpriest Holloran went whiter than his hair. Kel murmured reassurances, praying they and everyone would be able to cope, and when rescue came from an unexpected source wondered if the gods really were listening. Kitten had also seen the young immortals standing nose-to-nose, and after a quick glance at Daine scampered forward to add her snout to the colloquy. Bonedancer took wing, flapping after the dragonet amid alarmed sparrows, and Kel had to suppress laughter bubbling with relief when it decided Quenuresh’s broad back offered the best perch from which to peer at the improbable circle of young immortals. Quenuresh didn’t seem to mind, merely rolling her eyes, and Kel felt everyone’s fear ease. The adult griffins, however, who had little if any sense of humour, were looking as impatient as always, so Kel went to them first, bowing and announcing Roald and Shinko with their full titles before briefly naming Archpriest Holloran, the mages, and Tkaa. The griffins nodded only to the Crown Prince and Princess, looking regal themselves, and to Tkaa. Daine came forward to Kel’s side.

            “Your Highnesses, they’re pleased to meet you and ask you convey to His Majesty their appreciation of his policy towards immortals.”

            Daine’s voice was formal until she added in an amused undertone that that was only the gist but griffins did have strong feelings about orderliness and approved of the treaty system. Roald didn’t miss a beat.

            “It is my pleasure to meet you both, and to see your son again prospering with you. I will convey your words to my father, and in His name thank you for honouring our realm and us with your presence here today, and for creating New Hope’s Honesty Gate.”

            Shinko, face alight with wonder, dropped a curtsey and added her own pleasure in meeting them. Kel thought there was a certain satisfaction in their beak-claps but it didn’t stop the female immediately uttering a squawk of command to the kit, who glanced round, shook his head firmly, and went back to his conference with Amiir’aan and Kitten. The adult griffins looked at one another, managing to convey a resigned parental shrug, and leapt into the air, wingbeats mussing hair and flapping finery until they were high enough to begin their usual spiralling ascent. Junior was clearly thought safe to leave in his present company, and while Kel had her doubts as to whether it would be safe from him took a breath and moved on to Quenuresh.

            Even deep-seated visceral fear of a very large spidren at arm’s length was challenged by the sight of a grinning white fossil perched on her back, wings bating as Quenuresh bent foremost legs and dipped a shallow bow. Though her nostrils flared slightly as she sensed Roald’s measure of the Conté Gift, and much more widely as she glanced at Numair and Lindhall, she was as impeccably polite as usual and swiftly named her kin, who awkwardly offered deeper bows, before seconding the griffins’ praise of the treaty system. Roald’s genuine pragmatic interest helped him reply smoothly before enquiring if Quenuresh was finding life in New Hope’s woods satisfactory.

            “Certainly. Lady Keladry has been helpful and fair, working with mortals is an interesting experience, and the cheese is very good.”

            Roald and Shinko were aware of the part food played in the treaty and nodded, but explanations to the bug-eyed moved things along nicely. Leaving the spidren mage to discuss soft-ripening and blue-veining with Numair and Lindhall, Kel took Roald and Shinko on to the easier basilisks and ogres, all gravely polite, and finally the circle of young. Crouching, she introduced a solemn Amiir’aan and got the baby spidren clinging to his back to squeak its name. When Roald bent to greet them the griffin kit snapped at his hand, only just missing, and instinctively assuming authority Kel swiftly whapped him on the back of the head.

            “Behave, you.”

            He bated surprise but seeing her stern expression changed tack and booted Roald’s knee before turning his head to Kel and cocking it to invite a scratch. She complied, persuading a cautious Shinko to join her, and when clever Yamani fingers found the bony hinge beneath the short feathers of his jaw he crooned pleasure and began a deep rumbling.

            “He’s purring!” The look on Shinko’s face reminded Kel forcefully of the Cricket she’d known as a girl in the Islands, and she thought with real pleasure that her friend was already relaxing into her marriage.

            “So he is. Little brute.” Her voice was affectionate, despite keen memories of the blood lost feeding and grooming the kit. Roald grinned.

            “You’re putting that soft spot to amazing use, Kel. I was briefed about this place but it didn’t convey the wonder at all. And you’ve got me out of having to be back at Northwatch already, bless you. This is much better duty, though Quenuresh is going to take some getting used to.”

            Shinko blew out a breath, fingers stroking the kit. “She is, but lessening the spidren threat even a little is a boon. Kel, the Emperor’s extremely interested and wants to send someone to see how you’re doing it because spidrens have become a terrible problem on Wangetsushima. Would you mind?”

            “Of course not. It’s a bit nerve-racking because everyone has such visceral reactions, but as you can see people do get used to Quenuresh and the others. After a while.” She gave them a crooked smile. “If your stomachs have settled we should get on with lunch, and I think I’d better attend His Reverence. He’s looking a bit lost.”

            Archpriest Holloran was more astonished than upset, and happy to pepper Kel with questions about how she had come to be on such terms with so many immortals, drawing in Tkaa while Roald and Shinko went on greeting people with the bemused court party in support. Not wanting to spoil the surprise of the messhall decorations at the evening feast Kel had arranged for lunch to be, while hot and plentiful, finger-food that could be served outside—rolls, handwiches, and in Shinko’s honour karumetou cake, for which she’d hoarded sugar from her rations (and Neal’s, when he gave her grief about vegetables). To drink there was spring water and to Kel’s mind that was fine; New Hope had enough, barely, and until their crops started coming in luxuries were scarce.

            Once Holloran had a plate in hand she steered him to Irnai, sitting with Kitten, Amiir’aan, and Junior, and suggested he seek their opinions of mingling kinds before adding he should watch his fingers with the griffin and slipping away to join her parents. Being diplomats to the core had not made meeting Quenuresh any easier for them, but beyond their happiness in seeing her both were entirely delighted by the compelling evidence that Kel was following in their footsteps after all.

            “We’d seen flashes of it, dear, in the way you’ve always treated people and the things I learned at Steadfast made me wonder. But I hadn’t anticipated this marvel.” Ilane exchanged a look with her husband and waved a hand. “This astonishing fort, yes, from all you said about it, but despite your letters we didn’t really understand what you were doing. You didn’t say anything about how much all these immortals obviously respect you specifically. And the people love you.”

            “You’ve made us both very proud, Kel. I hope you know that.”

            “Oh Papa.”

            “You have, dear. But don’t cry, please.” Her mother smiled. Or I shall too, and it would be too entirely rude, as Yuki would say.”

            Kel dabbed her eyes, not feeling very coherent. “You don’t know how much … and after I—”

            “No, no, none of that, Kel.” Her Papa was serious for all his joy. “Your mother told me you tried to apologise to her and I won’t have it any more than she would. Honour’s all very well but if it binds you to doing something dishonourable it’s worse than useless. If you hadn’t gone after those poor refugees no-one would have blamed you, but I’m so glad, so proud you did.” He frowned. “And I agree with Thayet. That deal the King made you is grossly unfair. I can see why you’d accept it but he ought to be rewarding you, not salving his conscience.”

            Through blurry eyes Kel saw her mother lay a hand on her father’s arm and thought he might have said something more, but had to set the puzzle aside when Holloran reappeared.

            “Baron, Baroness. Lady Knight, I’m sorry to intrude on your family reunion.” He smiled. “And to drag myself away from those charming young immortals you adroitly deposited me with. That griffin kit is a handful but young Amiir’aan is very well-spoken and Skysong always interesting. Still, I really do need to talk to you about the ceremony and see the shrines I’m to dedicate.”

            “Of course, Your Reverence.”

            “Oh, just Holloran in private, please. I get reverenced to death half the time when it’s Lord Mithros to whom respect should go.”

            After learning to use the bare ‘Wyldon’ an Archpriest wanting to dispense with protocol presented no problem. His reason also appealed and Kel smiled warmly. “And Keladry, then. Or Kel. The shrines are on the terrace. We could walk over but I ought to give Their Highnesses a tour.” She stood, looking round for Roald and Shinko.

            “They’re talking to Numair and happy to wait on us.”

            “Alright, if you’re sure.”

            He was, and they went, Kel’s parents joining them. She gave Holloran the same explanation of her choice of gods as she had everyone, and he nodded thoughtfully.

            “Honest reasons and very proper, despite the odd mix. I’m afraid I know little of Lord Sakuyo. Is there anything special I ought to do?”

            Kel didn’t think so and explained about the Yamani trickster, her parents chipping in as they crossed the green and ranges, detouring round the playground to the broad steps up to the terrace before the shrines. The crowd watched with interest but respectfully afforded space, and when it became clear where they were headed politely pulled back further to afford Kel some privacy. As they reached the terrace Kel simply gestured with her arm: all the statues had been emplaced the night before, and if the carving was homely by Corus standards the genuine feelings of the makers shone in their power and dignity.

            “Oh my. These are very good.”

            Stepping carefully over the trough Holloran went from statue to statue, bowing to each before peering closely and reaching out to touch or feel the smoothness of the niches. For Lord Sakuyo, shown with a wide smile and laughing eyes, he did the same but then went to one knee.

            “Lord Sakuyo, I am Holloran, a priest of Lord Mithros, here to dedicate all these shrines. Forgive me my ignorance of your customs, High One, and if there is anything I should do to content you of which I am unaware please tell me that I may do all as you would wish.”

            Kel and her parents murmured ‘So mote it be’ and he rose, walking back to the statues of Lord Weiryn and the Green Lady.

            “I confess, Keladry, it’s these High Ones who worry me. Their daughter says—you’ve no idea how odd that makes me feel—they will be, ah, attending in person. Manifesting, in fact.” He took a breath. “And of course that’s right and proper. Lord Mithros graced his temple in Corus when it was dedicated, and there are records of other gods doing as much from time to time. But it hasn’t happened in Tortall in living memory and no-one I’ve asked has any knowledge of two gods manifesting simultaneously, nor of any married gods at all. Lord Weiryn I’ve known about most of my life, of course, but I’ve never served him. And no-one knows anything about the Green Lady because she’s so new!”

            Kel quirked an eyebrow. “Daine does. She lived with her Ma till she was thirteen.”

            Holloran blinked. “Well, yes, but—”

            “I know she wasn’t a goddess then, but Daine says she remembers being human in a way most gods can’t.”

            He sighed. “Yes, we had that discussion. Her attitude to all the Great Gods is, um—”

            “Distressingly irreverent? Yes, I found it so too, at first. I still do, most of the time, if I’m honest. But since the Chamber of the Ordeal pitchforked me into the paths of Lord Gainel and Shakith I’ve learned to appreciate it. She’s an amazing woman, you know. How would you react if you found out your da was a god and your ma just became one?”

            Holloran blinked again and Kel’s laughing eyes found her parents’, who grinned in unison.

            “I’ll also say that if the gods’ attention has taught me anything it’s that there’s nothing anyone can do about it. They’re gods. They do as they will, and they’ll hurt whoever they must in the process. But they also seem to want me to succeed in something. Rathhausak was part of it but there’s something else not done yet, so I don’t think they’d allow this dedication to be upset. And I’m sure neither of Daine’s parents want to shame her, so why don’t we go ahead and see what happens?”

            “Oh my. You’re very direct, Keladry.” Her parents laughed softly and she glared. “But I can’t disagree with your reasoning. The Lioness said much the same, and she did meet both of them, apparently, at Daine’s and Numair’s Beltane wedding. Oh well. On we go, then.”

            They went, and Kel gave the chief guests what was becoming her standard tour, though not with so many people being guided nor such a crowd cheerfully following. On the main level numbers weren’t a problem but for the inner allures and gallery Kel restricted admission to a small group, and at the cave. Kitten, however, pursued by Bonedancer, insisted on joining them at that point to give her lightshow with the stalagmites, and in the recently discovered further chamber Bonedancer soared towards the roof, discovered he could get through to the open air again, and circled round several times, collecting the sparrows as he did so. Trying to use a narrow passage while a flying fossil and a dozen sparrows insisted on going the other way at speed proved somewhere between impossible and heartstopping, but Lindhall eventually managed to get the excited revenant to watch Kitten’s continuing entertainment and an amused Daine persuaded the sparrows to calm down.

            While they were watching the spiralling light Roald called over Holloran and had a quiet word with Kel, whose eyes widened. She hurriedly despatched guards to find the people needed, and once the party emerged back into the daylight led them to the terrace. Fanche and Saefas were waiting with puzzled looks, as was Zerhalm, and a disgruntled Tobe soon appeared, a grinning guard telling Kel she’d been right to think he’d be in the stables meeting the guests’ fine horses. Ignoring the growing curiosity of the crowd who sensed something else they hadn’t known about in the wind, she guided the boy to her parents, made introductions, and crouched to speak quietly. They’d discussed this several times and his decision had been firm. She’d written to her parents and received their blessing, as they warmly confirmed now, so papers had been sent to the Corus magistracy. But she hadn’t thought in terms of today and Tobe’s eyes grew round as saucers.

            “Now?

            “Only if you want, Tobe. We can wait if you’d rather.”

            Her answer was arms flung round her neck and she had to resist scooping him up, contenting herself with hugging him back. A glance at her mother had Ilane quietly laying a hand gently on Tobe’s shoulder, and Kel took the few paces to stand in front of Roald and Shinko and eyed the crowd. She raised a hand  and they fell silent with gratifying speed, looking at the assembly on the terrace with avid curiosity.

            “People, it turns out there are some things planned that even I didn’t know about, so listen carefully now.” Laughter swept through them at her chagrin. “I’ve told you all before now that His Majesty was very impressed by the way everyone handled themselves in Scanra.” They sobered, and nods could be seen far and wide. “Knights and soldiers are trained for war, and have a sworn duty to protect. But the civilians who did so much to help us, and themselves, did so with little training and infinite courage. In token of that, Crown Prince Roald has some special purses to present to four special people with His Majesty’s thanks. Without all of them we wouldn’t be here today, and that’s the truth.”

            The applause and cheering as Fanche, Saefas, Zerhalm, and a scarlet-faced Tobe were honoured and rewarded was entirely deafening. In other places with other crowds there might have been jealousy or resentment at individuals chosen in part as representatives, but everyone at New Hope had either been there or heard more than enough to know Kel spoke true; that these four had contributed to the great rescue in ways no others could have achieved. Kel was bursting with pride tempered by acute butterflies, and when Tobe stood blinking at the velvet bag in his hand she went to his side and laid an arm across his shaking shoulders. Her parents followed to stand behind them.

            “And there’s one more thing.” She took a breath, hand squeezing the boy. “Legally speaking, Tobe’s been my indentured servant since March, when we met in Queensgrace. But he’s become far more than an indispensable help to me. He’s my son in all but name and he’s come to count me as his ma, so today we put it right. By the King’s grace, and with my parents’ delighted consent, he is today Tobeis of Mindelan.”

            The silence was absolute as they knelt together before Archpriest Holloran for the blessing that sealed the legal papers Roald and Shinko had brought; the roar that followed might have lifted roofs if they hadn’t been stone. Kel waited it out before raising a hand.

            “I couldn’t stop you all celebrating if I tried and I’ve no wish to do so, but please remember we still have serious business this evening—so keep it clean and sober, will you, for everyone’s sake?”

            They did, but it was a close-run thing.

 

* * * * *

 

Replacing the usual Mabon harvest ceremony, dedication of the shrines took place at sunset, day and night balanced, barriers between realms at their weakest. Kel stood on the terrace to one side of the shallow bay with Roald, Shinko, Daine, and all the guests in best finery; she wore her owl-embroidered kimonos, attracting startled looks as she walked to her place. Irnai stood beside her in a simple, richly coloured blue dress Kel had given her, and Neal behind her with Yuki in Queenscove kimonos; Tobe stood with her parents, looking dazed and fingering a Mindelan tunic that had belonged to her nephew Lachran as if it might suddenly vanish. On the other side of the bay immortals, including Tkaa, Kitten, and a surprisingly well-behaved Junior, formed an impressive group rising from younglings through smaller spidrens and Quenuresh to tall basilisks and taller ogres. Below them on the main level all the soldiery save a duty watch stood in company formation, armour gleaming, officers to the fore with Merric and Seaver. Civilians packed round, well-scrubbed children within the low fence of the playground and equally well-scrubbed adults massed behind, spilling back to the green.

            An act of dedication was not in itself complicated. An offering was made, a prayer said; what counted was sincerity, not splendour. Even a simple home shrine, no more than a token of the god wetted with a drop of beer, might receive the musical chimes signalling acceptance by divine power. Kel had had warring impulses, to honour the gods as richly as she and New Hope could afford, and to maintain simplicity in keeping with refugee poverty and the minimal fuss she preferred. As the scale of ceremony had sunk in she’d inclined to the richer option, wanting to impress in keeping with Roald’s and Shinko’s status, but in the end sensibly split the difference. Archpriest Holloran had little jugs of good wine and bags of clean grain, some of the first from New Hope’s own fields, and had strongly approved her choices.

            She found herself holding her breath all the same as he completed his prayer to Lord Mithros and stepped forward to pour out grain and splash wine on the base of the statue. But the chimes were immediate and louder than she’d expected, with a stranger noise behind, a distant fury of battle, clashing arms and cries in combat. She saw Holloran’s face pale and heard the collective gust and rustle as everyone made the gods’ circle. Strong voiced, Holloran gave thanks to his patron for his acceptance of the offering and turned to face the crowd, face alight.

            “I have heard that noise of far-off battle twice before and it is Lord Mithros’s own voice. Beyond doubt he watches us tonight, and tells us all that you of New Hope are in his care.”

            The shrine to Mithros was to the left of the central double-width niche, and in deep silence Holloran crossed to its other side where the Goddess stood. His prayer wasn’t the mealy-mouthed afterthought Kel had grown used to the Goddess receiving in military circles devoted to strength and fighting prowess but as full as his prayer to Mithros, invoking the beauty of the maiden, fertility of the mother, and wisdom of the crone. Stepping forward again he poured and splashed, and again the chimes came at once, this time woven with sounds of hounds moiling and belling on a scent. Holloran’s face was charged with fervour as he thanked the Goddess, and Kel could see the immortals showing surprise in quick glances at one another; even Quenuresh looked interested.

            Shakith’s statue was beyond the Goddess, blind eyes staring and the winged staff of prophecy in her hand. For this Holloran called Irnai forward: his prayer thanked the High One for her preservation and aid at Rathhausak, and she poured out the grain and wine. The noise that came with the chimes was the one Kel had heard from Irnai’s mouth when she had voiced the prophecy, great hawks crying somewhere far above, and for a heartbeat light crackled around Irnai, her hair standing away from her head. To Kel’s relief, and from his huffed breath Wyldon’s, the girl didn’t collapse as she had when greater power moved through her, though her face was remote as she walked back to Kel’s side, with a fey smile. Ignoring protocol Kel knelt to hug her a moment, smoothing her hair, and Irnai kissed her cheek before whispering that she was fine and freeing herself. Standing again Kel saw identical looks of approval in her parents’ eyes and Wyldon’s, and her worry dissolved in amusement at the thought of teasing her mother with the observation.

            After Shakith came Lord Gainel, in a sweeping coat with one foot on smooth ground and one on jagged spikes to represent his divided stance between divine order and mortal chaos. He never spoke to mortals directly nor entered the mortal realms and with his chimes there was no further sound, but to everyone’s surprise, including her own, Quenuresh jerked slightly and after a moment shook her head as if to clear it before announcing in a dry voice that the Dream King blessed their nights. Holloran had by this stage passed from exultation back to wonder, and after giving the god due thanks added a word to Quenuresh to acknowledge her conveyance of the divine message.

            On the other side of the funnel, nearer Kel, the shrines beyond Mithros’s were those of the Black God and Lord Sakuyo. When Holloran came to the Black God’s and bowed to the statue, a robed and hooded figure with no face visible, tension rose and he swallowed hard but didn’t delay. Grain and wine were poured and the chimes sounded, behind them the noise of wind soughing through bare trees, and behind that a silence so deep it burned in the ear. Gravely Holloran bowed, giving thanks, and before continuing to the next shrine turned to face the crowd.

            “Being unfamiliar with Lord Sakuyo I prayed here earlier asking that if there were anything special I should do the High One let me know. And while the Lady Knight Commander was showing us around this astonishing fort I found myself believing strongly that our offering here should be of sake, the rice-wine of Yaman. Lady Yukimi found some, the clear liquid in this jug, and it seemed to me right she and Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Shinkokami, who have worshipped Lord Sakuyo all their lives, should make this offering on our behalf.”

            The crowd murmured interested understanding and approval as Yuki and Cricket, resplendent in kimonos and face-paint, moved smoothly forward. Used to Yamani masks Kel knew both were deeply moved and apprehensive, and could see a slight tremor in their hands as they waited for Holloran to complete his prayer mentioning the welcome strength of Tortall’s Yamani alliance and the grace of their future queen. Yuki poured the grain and Shinko, following Yamani custom, touched a finger wet with sake to the god’s lips before pouring the jug’s contents onto the base of the statue. For a moment nothing happened and in the strained silence Kel felt her heart fill with alarm, but then the chimes sounded deafeningly enough to make everyone jump and over them a great peal of unearthly, booming laughter rang that made the pale stone of the cliff blaze with many-hued light.

            Recovering herself as sound and light faded, Kel saw Kitten bouncing with admiration and couldn’t stop a laugh bubbling out. Laughing themselves, faces shining, Shinko and Yuki curtseyed deeply to the statue and after Holloran’s strained prayer of thanks came forward.

            “Lord Sakuyo likes his jests, as you heard.” Shinko’s voice was intense but not loud, and Kel saw people craning to hear. “He is a most wonderful god and in Yaman many laugh at his tricks and those we play on ourselves in his name. But I know of only two people living who have had the grace of hearing him laugh, and there will be much wonder in my land when they learn he laughed here, in the hearing of so many.”

            The crowd had been shaken and didn’t know what to make of this, but Shinko herself had already won their hearts and there was a muted cheer. Face serious, she turned to Kel.

            “Lady Keladry, you will remember, I think, that in Yamani law and custom those two people are known as Sakuyo’s Blessed and have the right to enter anywhere and be welcomed. It is not a duty I had anticipated but as a Princess of the Imperial House it is my honour and obligation to name myself and all here as his Blessed, with the same right, and so I do.” She turned back to the crowd. “It will mean little in Tortall, I think, but when I write to tell His Imperial Majesty of tonight’s wonder, tokens of jade and gold will be sent, and should any of you travel to Yaman you will be most welcome and honoured.”

            She and Yuki curtseyed again, to crowd, immortals, and guests, before returning to places beside and behind Kel. Only a quick squeeze of hands was possible but Kel could feel their trembling, and the emotion in their eyes was plain. She heard Roald draw sharp breath as he hugged Shinko, and Neal embraced Yuki for a longer moment. Her parents’ expressions were abstracted, and the sardonic voice she sometimes heard in some detached part of her mind murmured that if they weren’t calculating what status as Sakuyo’s Blessed might mean when they next returned to the Islands they ought to be. She tore her gaze back to Holloran, who met it with a look at once exalted, serene, and apprehensive, and she managed a nod before Daine came to her side.

            Together they followed Holloran to the central double niche. Holloran had tried to persuade Daine to speak the prayer but she’d flatly refused, asking him if he’d care to supplicate his ma and da, and adding she had a hard enough time standing up to them already. Kel didn’t think the Archpriest had been persuaded by this familial theology but certainly wasn’t going to argue with her friend, and listened in the charged silence as Holloran invoked the wedded gods and praised the wild magic of their daughter that had proven so great an aid to New Hope’s people. Kel had agreed to make the offering and as she walked forward to face the statues could feel the weight of peoples’ attention.

            Iestyn of Goatstrack had done a fine job, Kel thought, looking at the gods’ faces as she loosened the tie and poured grain at their feet. Holloran handed her the wine, and with her heart hammering she poured it, barely finishing before chimes sounded once, again. Silver fire rimmed niche and statues, growing to a heatless blaze that forced her back, eyes watering; she almost stumbled as kimono skirts restricted her stride but a sturdy arm caught her round the shoulders and she heard Daine’s voice close to her ear.

            “Da! Stop it!”

            Kel blinked away tears and her breath caught. Standing before their shrine Lord Weiryn and the Green Lady were as Iestyn had carved them, arms around one another’s waists and carrying bow and spiral. Their faces were not those of the carvings but their expressions were the same, though infinite eyes glinted with light of their own and Kel saw in Weiryn’s something that reminded her of Daine’s liking for owls.

            “Don’t scold me, daughter. It is my first great shrine.” Weiryn’s voice was overwhelming, deep, as rich as the velveted antlers springing from his head. As her ears rang and sight returned Kel saw Holloran had dropped to his knees, face upturned to the manifest gods like a baby’s at the breast, and she heard the rustle and gasps as everyone knelt with him. Even the immortals lowered themselves, spidrens crouching and basilisks and ogres bowing their heads to peer from under brows, but Daine’s arm was holding her up. When it was removed she tried to bend her own knees but Daine seized her hand, pulling her forward and keeping her upright before letting her go and grasping Weiryn’s arms, turning up her face for his kiss.

            “I know, Da, and I’m happy for you, but please don’t be too godly. It scares people.”

            “And attracts them, love.” The Green Lady was stunningly beautiful, her dress a forest of tissue-thin layers swirling with embroidery and her voice the comfort of a cool hand on a sweating brow yet laced with amusement. “He dazzled me that Beltane night, you know.”

            “Oh Ma.” Mother and daughter hugged tightly, and Kel dropped her eyes as much in embarrassment at their intimacy as in belated respect. “You always liked a show. How’s Gran’da?”

            “Happy in the Peaceful Realms. The Black God lets him visit us sometimes.”

            “We have time enough for news, daughter.” Weiryn’s voice also rolled with amusement. “Will you not present your friend?”

            Laughing, Daine let her mother go. “You already know everyone anyway. But yes, of course.” She drew herself up. “Ma, Da, this is Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, Protector of the Small, who commands here. Kel, Lord Weiryn of the Hunt, and the Green Lady, Sarra Beneksri.”

            Kel curtseyed as deeply as kimonos allowed, and raised her eyes to find both gods intent on her. Daine had once tried to describe Gainel’s eyes and these must be similar, infinite depths in which stars moved and distances swirled, with a gaze that saw everything with utterly inhuman detachment beyond love or pity. Something in the Green Lady’s gaze made her uneasy, as if an urgent warning was going unheeded, but Weiryn was speaking and she had no time to think more of it.

            “Protector of the Small, the elemental of the Chamber and my siblings Shakith and Gainel guided you to Rathhausak, yet you might have failed on your way, or fallen to the axe of Stenmun Kinslayer.” Weiryn’s regard was entirely unsettling and emotions churned Kel’s heart and stomach. “All gods rejoice that you did not, and won through to end the contempt of that mage for our decrees.” His attention swung out to all. “Rise, mortals, and hear us.” He looked sideways a moment, and Kel could have sworn he winked at Quenuresh. “Immortals also.”

            His command was compelling and she saw Holloran rise, trembling, and heard others following; a glance showed open-mouthed faces peering up through the evening dark at the glowing figures on the terrace.

            “For you, Protector, I have a gift in token of that rejoicing.” He offered her the great bow in his hand, and from somewhere produced a quiver with three arrows whose vanes shimmered red and orange. “This bow will seek its mark, and the mark these arrows find will burn, be it metal or stone, for they are fletched with sunbird feathers. And my blessing lies on all who hunt to feed the people of this place. Their steps shall be warded and their game plentiful, by gift of the boar and deer gods.” His voice dropped and Kel didn’t know how far it carried, though from their startled looks Roald and Shinko heard. “The rabbits need no asking to multiply.”

            “The childbeds of New Hope have my blessing and the mothers shall rest easy after labour.” The Green Lady’s eyes shone as she handed the spiral she carried to Kel, and her voice rang. “Your kitchens also shall be blessed, and the food you grow shall savour of its essence.”

            Yes! A knot untied in Kel as the wildest and most daring of her thoughts about what might happen fell into place. Opening her arms despite the gifts she found herself clutching, she curtseyed grateful thanks and straightened, letting her arms fall again to her sides.

            “High Ones, I thank you, for myself and all here. Your gifts are beyond all price.” She took a deep breath, seeing encouragement in Daine’s eyes. “I know we can offer nothing to match the Divine Realms, but will it please you dine with us, that we may honour you with more than symbols of our worship and labour?”

            The gods’ voices came in extraordinary unison. “It will.”

            Suspecting she was grinning like a fool but not caring in the least Kel turned, extending one laden hand to Daine and the other to a dazed Holloran, and started towards the steps down from the terrace. Weiryn and the Green Lady fell in behind and she trusted everyone to follow as the crowd parted before them, faces shining with shock. Distantly she was aware of cooks racing from the back of the assembly for kitchens and messhall, and though she felt like skipping walked with slow care to give them time. As they neared the hall doors Tobe scampered to open them and take the awkward bow, quiver, and spiral from her; his eyes were huge and she ruffled his hair as she swept into the hall and turned.

            “Be welcome, High Ones, to our feast and our hall.”

            New Hope lacked the fine linens and silverware that would grace such a feast at the court or any wealthy fief, but to Kel’s eyes the bare wooden tables crowded with candles and simple place settings looked good amid the striking stone carvings. The gods obviously agreed, for the Green Lady waved a hand and candles burst alight; smiling, Weiryn also gestured, silver fire spilling from his hand, and the crystalline pillars began to glow from within, filling the hall with shimmering washes of colour. As soon as she’d seen the basilisks’ work the day before Kel had decided the unexpected beauty of the hall would be a pleasing highpoint after the ceremonies, and with the added godlight the stunned expressions that came to everyone’s faces as they entered were all she could have hoped for, and more.

            The food was a riot of taste and the wine she cautiously sipped exploded in her mouth as the feast became a delightful whirl of moments she could never remember with any coherence—a grinning Numair introducing Lindhall to his in-laws and the older mage’s chagrin when Bonedancer flapped from his shoulder to perch on the Green Lady’s arm, clattering his beak with pleasure and rubbing his head against her breast; Shinko deep in conversation with Fanche and Saefas, asking about their lives at New Hope and unaware of Kitten by her side making the beads of her necklace glow; Wyldon, in a state of astonishment that transformed his austerity, hesitantly asking Weiryn about dogs and the god answering with pleased humour and a tale of the hounds that ran with the Wild Hunt; Roald absently plucking an inquisitive baby spidren from his leg and hastily putting it down as he talked treaties with Quenuresh and ate cheese; Holloran trying to absorb that he was dining with gods and laughing with wonder at the absurdity of it all; Tkaa gravely remarking to Weiryn that immortal young of all kinds seemed to mature faster in the mortal realms, and perhaps he might convey as much to Diamondflame should they meet; her parents making her blush and Tobe laugh with stories of her childhood in the Islands; Neal in earnest conversation with the Green Lady about the care of pregnancy and later, when all had spilled back outside and musicians among the soldiery and civilians assembled into an inspired impromptu band, leading Yuki in a dance around the green. A reluctant griffin kit had been summoned away after the meal by ringing cries from above, and Quenuresh departed with her kin, remarking that she hadn’t been so surprised in centuries and wondering what the Divine Realms were coming to, but the gods stayed and danced, Weiryn’s antlers gleaming in the light of fires hastily built on each side and the Green Lady’s dress swirling and glittering as they moved among other couples, Roald and Shinko, Daine and Numair, Fanche and Saefas, her grinning parents, Tobe and Irnai, Idrius and Olka Valestone, all manner of refugee couples and soldiers with refugees, and with a sense of bemusement Kel knew would intensify, herself and Wyldon.

            After a while the gods withdrew with Daine and Numair, sitting before their shrine in a family circle. Kel saw Daine rest her head on her mother’s shoulder and Kitten climb on to the goddess’s lap before she turned away, not wishing to intrude, and went to find her own parents, talking with Neal and Yuki about Lord Sakuyo’s blessing. Not much later, however, she felt a tug at her sleeve and looked down to see Kitten.

            The antlered god wants to talk to you before he goes, Kel. Her mindvoice became thoughtful. He is nice. My grandsire says gods are annoying but he has not annoyed me and says my spellwork is very good.

            Kel laughed, agreed it was excellent, and took the dragonet’s paw until they came to the broad steps to the terrace, where Kitten scrambled ahead of her. The gods were standing and Kel was surprised to notice Numair was taller than both, though Weiryn’s antlers gave him an additional foot no mortal could match. He regarded her gravely as she approached and she again felt the unease that had possessed her when the Green Lady had first looked at her.

            “Protector.” Daine jabbed a finger and he glanced down with a smile. “Keladry, then, as my daughter is so scant with titles and says you do not care for the name the elemental gave you. What I can say is limited, both in true uncertainty that besets this time and by command of the Great Gods, who restrict the interference in mortal affairs we are permitted. That mage’s necromancy was one thing, your mortal wars another, and no business of mine, but these are not wholly mortal affairs any longer. We have waited since Dunlath in hope that its example would be followed, but you are the first to do so. That is in large part why my brothers and sisters were so forthcoming earlier.”

            Not at all sure how she ought to respond to this confidence, Kel dropped a curtsey and said the first thing that came into her mind.

            “Our immortals are refugees also, my Lord, driven here by war.”

            “Perhaps so, but other immortals fight for the Scanran king and would claim territory your own neglects.” Having seen the poverty of so many northern villages and knowing only the Scanran threat had forced royal attention away from Tyra, Carthak, and Yaman, Kel couldn’t deny it and her eyes dropped. “It is no shame on you, Keladry, but it is a complication. And Shakith says others among the immortals, as well as stormwings, have parts yet to play here before time is resolved.”

            Meeting his gaze Kel was swept by dizziness and a sense of what she might have called the god’s pity if she hadn’t known he felt no human emotions. When he spoke again his tone was brusquer.

            “Keep faith in us, Keladry, and we will keep faith in you. The elemental named you well, and all that happens here has our attention, as you have our blessings and the gifts we may give. But we cannot prevent all we might wish nor protect all we bless. I cannot say more. We must return to the Divine Realms. Make your farewell, Sarra.”

            The Green Lady embraced Daine, and with a slight frown turned to Kel, kissing her forehead with lips that burned cold.

            “Sarra.” Weiryn’s voice sounded sharp.

            “Yes, yes, I break no rule. Keladry, my spiral will give virtue of itself, and if a woman prays to me here I will answer. But it is also of the Great Goddess and will summon her in your need if you call. Remember.”

            “Thank you, my Lady. Thank you both.”

            Their voices were for a second time in unison. “You have deserved your blessings.” And with a swirl of silver fire they were gone, leaving Kel blinking, Kitten chortling, and Daine frowning puzzlement.

            Kel dabbed watering eyes. “What was that all about?”

            “I don’t know, Kel, but I don’t like it.” Daine shrugged. “Gods are fair confusing, even Ma, and that’s when they’re being helpful. When they get all mysterious there’s no knowing what they really want.”

            “It’s always like that.” Numair rested a hand on Kel’s shoulder. “I tried asking Weiryn about that prophecy but he said he had nothing to add to Shakith’s words. And if Shakith has anything to add I dare say it’ll come the same way and leave us no wiser.” He shook his head. “I think you should be as careful as you possibly can, Kel. Something’s up. But keep doing what you do so amazingly well and try not to worry about what you can’t change.” A smile lit his dark face. “When all’s said and done, eight gods have blessed you tonight with hundreds to witness it, and two came to dinner. The court’ll be hopping sideways for weeks when Roald and Shinko get back and report what’s happened.”

            Kel wasn’t sure she cared for that either, however true, yet Numair was right there was no point fretting on things she could do nothing about. But for all her tiredness and the lingering effects of the unaccustomed, god-bolstered wine she did not sleep for a long while.

            The aftermath of the extraordinary evening took extensive cleaning and straightening next morning, for which Kel bullied everyone awake. Roald and Shinko had been supposed to leave by noon, but Roald unilaterally asserted authority to postpone departure for a day, without any objection from his entourage, and spent several hours talking with basilisks and ogres, as well as refugees bold enough to greet him. After some thought Kel took advantage of Holloran’s continued presence to make a request, and in mid-afternoon a long procession rode to Haven, where the Archpriest blessed the mass grave of its defenders, making up for the scant ceremony with which they’d been buried, and dedicated the ground as a resting place for New Hope’s residents. Using another handful of their first grain and water from the spring he invoked the Black God’s peace for all who lay and would lie here, and chimes sounded with that soughing of wind and burning silence behind them. The only distress was the sight of three stormwings high above, wings glinting in the sun—the first Kel had seen since the return from Rathhausak.

            Riding Peachblossom back to New Hope beside Wyldon, he looked at her with his usual dryness touched by wonder and irony.

            “More congratulations are in order, Lady Knight. I thought I spoke in jest when I said you were setting the gods by the ears as well as Vanget and I. I should have known better.” A rueful amusement entered his voice. “It is going to look very odd in my quarterly report when I have to describe what happened last night. And just now, come to that.”

            She grinned at him. “Oh I don’t know. Military brevity’s a wonderful thing. ‘The shrines at New Hope were dedicated in the usual manner, and offerings accepted by the relevant gods.’”

            “Two of whom stayed to eat and dance, the District Commander taking opportunity to enquire after means of breeding warhounds.”

            They both laughed, startling Neal, riding behind them with Yuki, so much that Magewhisper pranced. Wyldon shot him a dark look before returning attention to Kel and lowering his voice.

            “Jesting aside, Keladry, I don’t like this warning Numair says Lord Weiryn gave you, nor that he could get nothing further from them about that prophecy. I know it’s impossible in war, but do be careful.”

            “Of course.” What else could she say? “I don’t think anyone’s care will make much difference. Even the gods’. Master Harailt was right. They too wait to see what happens. We can only keep on doing our best.”

            Uneasy with the conversation she pulled Peachblossom away from him and gestured Yuki to come forward on her beautiful new mare, a wedding present from Duke Baird.

            “Yuki, could you tell Lord Wyldon of Sakuyo’s Blessed and these tokens? My parents are too busy scheming about all the hospitality they’ll be able to command when they’re next in Yaman.”

            Face dimpling with suppressed laughter, Yuki complied.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six — Invasions

25–30 September

 

Royal visitors and divine dancing notwithstanding, urgency of harvesting meant Adner had everyone he could order or cajole back in the fields well before Roald and Shinko departed with all guests except Yuki, who set about decorating and rearranging Neal’s quarters to her satisfaction and helping in the kitchens. Fanche and St’aara ruthlessly organised all but the youngest children to bag, stack, or assist with the hot work of boiling, sealing, and storing; an alarmed but very competent Amiir’aan found himself minding a dozen babes and toddlers. There was more to reap and pick than anyone had thought likely, and the food sampled was extremely good—the goddess’s blessing, people said cheerily—but jars ran short, so carpenters turned lathes till they smoked and basilisks roared rock-spells at the results. Some wood was green and the resulting containers lop-sided, but once stone they could neither flavour their contents nor leak and no-one cared about appearances.

            Patrols were reduced to provide more fieldguards, dogs and sparrows reinforcing the five that still went out every day, while Uinse’s Company One took over the gatehouse and alures. Off-duty squads joined refugees in harvesting, adding lightly armed but trained fighters, and the ogres proved willing to work with Adner while there was so much to be done so swiftly. But with more than five hundred pairs of hands working north and south of the fin and carts in constant motion to and fro security was stretched thinner than Kel or Brodhelm liked, and she fretted over her decision to push cultivation in the southern valley.

            “Don’t second guess yourself, Lady Kel.” Brodhelm was phlegmatic. “It’s only for ten days or so and we need that food. No good keeping everyone safe at home only to find ourselves starving at Imbolc.”

            That was unarguable but Kel didn’t like the extent to which people were exposed, and word from Mastiff that a Steadfast patrol had encountered a fair-sized Scanran war party and taken casualties did nothing to ease her mind; worse, the report had no names so she could only hope Dom and his squad hadn’t been involved. Further word from Northwatch of a tauros attack close to them, suggesting the elusive immortals had gone back west, was cold comfort: Kel felt guiltily glad they had become less of a threat to her own people but concerns about how they were evading the search intensified. A tauros was not by any account subtle, and most were killed fairly quickly once spotted. Stormwings were also seen, by patrols and over the valley, always high up but inducing oppressive awareness of what attracted them, though sight of the griffins was more positive. Still uneasy after pulling an extra half-squad from the alures to reinforce Sergeant Connac in the south valley Kel lost temper with her fretful mood and took herself to the archery ranges to try Lord Weiryn’s gift.

            The Green Lady’s spiral hung in the infirmary, to the interest of women enduring pregnancy, but the bow and strangely fletched arrows Kel kept. When she’d first held it it had felt very odd and then superbly right in her hand, despite being by far the tallest bow she’d ever tried, and she suspected it had adjusted itself to her size and strength. What wood it was no-one could say, even Urthor, Company Eight’s experienced bowyer. It was a self bow, a single piece of wood, but the grain was wrong and the colour too dark for yew and without flecking; whether its back and belly were all heartwood or mixed heart- and sapwood was anyone’s guess. Nor could the material of the string be identified beyond saying it wasn’t hemp, flax, or silk, but Kel didn’t care: the stave bent easily for her to string, the nocks seemed integral, the string held tension so well it hummed when she plucked it, and the whole was beautiful, a weapon that appealed beyond utility, as the damascened steel of her glaive and sword made them more than deadly.

            With everyone in the fields the main level was deserted, and she took the chance to move a target to the front of the empty barracks and take her stance all but touching the railing of the livestock pens. The range was more than five hundred feet, and while she’d certainly sent arrows that far before with a self bow she’d been aiming at charging bandits, not a small bullseye. Uinse, standing watch on the eastern alure to replace a man she’d sent to the fieldguard, whistled when he saw what she was doing.

            “That’s some shot you’re trying, Lady Kel.”

            “Lord Weiryn said this bow would seek its mark, so let’s see.”

            She had broadheads and needlepoints in her quiver, with goose-fletching and slot-cut nocks. The sunbird-fletched ones Weiryn had provided, which were warm to the touch, seemed too dangerous to use in anything but deadly earnest; whatever sunbirds might be—she’d meant to ask Daine or Numair before they’d departed for Steadfast. In any case, she wanted to know what the bow alone could do. Deciding there was no point shilly-shallying, she nocked a needlepoint, automatically placing the cock-vane away from the stave, swung the bow up with a thrill at its easy feel, drew, and let fly. She lost sight of the arrow but from his vantage-point Uinse whistled.

            “It went right through , Lady Kel, in the bull so far as I could tell.”

            “I’m not that good a shot, Uinse.”

            “Maybe not with another bow.”

            She squinted disbelief but when she trotted across to the target found he’d been right. A hole was punched an inch from the centre of the bullseye, and the arrow buried in the barrack wall. Humming surprise she worked it loose and walked back to her position. Three broadheads in quick succession with a shallower draw also found the bullseye in a quivering group. Uinse and other sentries called appreciation and she glared, finger circling outwards to tell them to keep attention where it belonged. Grinning they complied, and after a moment’s thought she walked round the livestock pens to the nearest steps to the shelf and climbed to the alure. Her range was over eight hundred feet, approaching the limit of any longbow she’d seen or heard of.

            Archers firing from the alure were usually facing the other way, and after a quick scan of the fields to make sure nothing was happening she positioned herself in front of a crenel; cracking her elbow on a merlon as she drew would not help. She’d stuck with broadheads but after nocking again swung the bow up fast and drew as fully as she could—and again the arrow thwapped into the target. At this distance she couldn’t be sure but it looked like another bullseye and even in her childhood dreams she’d never been that kind of shot. Three more fast broadheads followed with the same result. The sentries were sneaking glances and Uinse, nearest her, was openly watching but there was no banter and she thought they were as spooked as she. Wordlessly she held out the bow and Uinse came forward eagerly, but as soon as he held it shook his head, giving it back.

            “I don’t think so, Lady Kel. It’s a one-woman bow, I reckon. It doesn’t want me to use it.” She raised her eyebrows. “That’s what I felt.” His face was thoughtful. “In an emergency, maybe. It didn’t feel hostile, just wrong.” He grinned. “Maybe it’s like Peachblossom. When you rescued Gil at Haven he was fine but anyone near him in the stables had best watch feet and fingers. I’m taking no chances when there’s no need, and so I’ll tell the lads when they ask.” He gestured and heads hastily swivelled. “Eyes where they should be, lads. Show’s over.”

            Given her suspicions about the bow adjusting to her Kel couldn’t argue, and turned to something Uinse’s words had reminded her about.

            “Tell me, what are the folks who were, um, unconvinced about the Wildmage’s parentage saying since they … showed up in person?”

            He grinned. “Not a lot, Lady Kel. No room for doubt now, is there?”

            “No bad feelings?”

            “Not that I’ve seen—why would anyone not like having a Godborn on our side?” He scratched his head. “It is odd. I always thought gods were … I dunno, ageless. I certainly didn’t reckon there was one only ten years older than me, and born a peasant at that.” He grinned again. “Gives a man hope, Lady Kel. Maybe I’ll get to be a god too some day.”

            “In your dreams.”

            He laughed, and she made her way thoughtfully back to the target. All four arrows were indeed bulls, clustered tightly, so Weiryn had been serious. After unstringing the bow and shifting the target back where it belonged, she went to her quarters and put bow and quiver with her wall-fighting gear. A longbow was no use on horseback or in close combat, and her glaive only of use on the alures if an enemy had already gained them; the full armour needed in field combat would be as much hindrance as protection if she were walking walls in a siege, so her ready gear was divided between functions. Bow and quiver joined half-armour, staff, and a spare griffin-band; one was always in her belt-pouch, and she’d sewn others into the linings of bascinet and close helm.

            After the evening meal she invited Neal and Yuki, Merric, and Seaver to her quarters and told them how her marksmanship seemed to have improved, and what Uinse had said in declining the chance to see if his might do the same.

            “From the alure?” Merric’s eyes were wide.

            “Yes and the target was right over by the barracks.”

            “Kel, that’s … what, nine hundred feet?”

            “Over eight hundred for sure.”

            “I doubt I could hit the barracks at that range, far less a target.”

            “Not just the target, the bull.” Neal rested chin on hand, pondering. “Kel, the only person I’ve ever seen shoot even remotely like that is Daine. Alanna was always telling me what an amazing shot she is, and when we met up with her once—the same trip on which I met those smugglers, actually—she got her to demonstrate. I’ve never seen anything like it. One of my brothers reckoned the longbow his weapon of choice so I’ve heard archers’ tall tales and this was up there with the best of them.” He fell silent, clearly thinking of the brothers he’d lost in the Immortals War, and Yuki reached to grasp his hand.

            “So’s four bulls at more than eight hundred feet, Neal.” Seaver leaned back, grinning. “Lord Weiryn said it’d seek its mark, didn’t he, Kel? Seems he meant it.”

            “That was my point, Seaver. When I asked Daine where she’d got her bow she said it was a present. She didn’t say from whom, but what’s the betting it was her da?”

            “Huh.” Merric’s face was thoughtful. “And Uinse said it felt wrong when he held it?”

            “Yes. Do you want to try?”

            “Please.”

            She got the bow and strung it. Each of them held it in turn, shaking their heads, and Yuki, the last, tried to unstring it.

            “Kel, I can’t even bend this thing.”

            The knights all tried, and though Neal, the tallest, just managed to do so he couldn’t string it again. Surprised, Kel took it back, lodging the base against her foot, and it bent easily in her hands.

            “Well, that settles it.” Merric was definite. “I know exactly what Uinse meant. It wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t for me.”

            “Uinse said it was like Peachblossom. In an emergency he’ll do whatever’s needed but otherwise he’s a one-woman horse. Except for Tobe, of course.”

            “He’s a vicious brute, Kel, as you know perfectly well.” Neal radiated indignation and got his laugh. “But it’s a good comparison.”

            “So what we have is a guaranteed shot at eight hundred feet plus.” Merric frowned. “Kel, that’s a weapon we need to think about. A mage cooking up a spell might stand at that range and be sure he was safe. Or if we ever face a siege, gods forfend, any engines and their crews would be closer than that. I should talk to Brodhelm and Uinse about this.”

            Kel waved permission; she’d have done so anyway. With the bow restored to its place the talk became general, Merric and Seaver considering Roald’s marriage, sighing over Shinko’s beauty, and teasing Neal and Yuki about wedded bliss.

            “You wait,” Neal retorted to an unsubtle sally from Merric that made Yuki raise her fan. “You’ll find out. If you’re lucky enough to marry a Yamani, that is, supposing you could find one mad enough to have you.”

            “Is Yuki mad then that she had you?”

            Kel laughed with them but when Merric’s remarks remained on the bawdy side she kicked them out, pleading a long day. They went with half-hearted protests, Yuki with a giggle as Neal’s arm snaked possessively round her waist. Her friends’ obvious happiness and Shinko’s contentment with Roald were welcome to Kel, who could not begrudge them joy and wouldn’t have liked herself if she could; but the loneliness she’d felt at Steadfast pressed on her.

            After seeing Tobe abed, Jump by his side, and sitting with them to tug the dog’s tattered ears and tell about the marvellous bow, she returned to her rooms. With combat wear, armour, and weapons set ready, she stripped off shirt, breeches, and small clothing, folding them before reaching for her nightshirt, and caught sight of herself in the metal mirror she’d hung to don her kimonos for the dedication. Straightening, she considered herself dispassionately, looking down and in the mirror: though more heavyset, as well as scarred, her body was of the same kind as her Mama’s, wide-hipped and small-breasted—a contrast Ilane told her changed once her breasts had enlarged with milk, never decreasing to their former size. Kel’s were what she thought men called apple breasts, high and wide-spaced, to Lalasa’s despair when she’d tried dresses that depended on having a cleavage. Nor were her hips as wide as her mother’s, thigh muscles and thickened waist making a column, not the hourglass men like Dom admired. Strength and endurance served her well and she wouldn’t trade them for the world, but despite what her mother said about noblemen who thought of wives as they thought of mares, it wasn’t a body she could imagine a man wanting; desiring to touch as she desired to be touched, to enter in that mystery of which she remained ignorant.

            Sticking out her tongue at her reflection she pulled on her nightshirt, blew out the candle, and tucked herself in; but after a few minutes of staring into the dark got up again, slipped the nightshirt off, and lay back on top of the bed, letting one hand rise to her breasts and the other drift lower. Imagination of Dom’s hands instead of her own was familiar but memory of the looks in Yuki’s and Shinko’s newly married eyes accompanied him. She wanted both, but they would not be hers on her virgin road of knighthood; perhaps she should have done and dedicate her warrior chastity to the Goddess, content with the bloodier penetrations of glaive and sword righteously used. Awareness of Tobe only doors away limited movement and sound but at last the familiar ritual of solitary nights past and to come was complete. Putting her nightshirt on with a shiver she slid gratefully under the blankets into her body’s warmth and let the brief satisfaction carry her into sleep.

           

* * * * *

 

Next day was second last of the month and Kel spent the morning tackling the inventory required of commanders every calend. The most important thing was newly harvested grains and fruits, and she spent a weary couple of hours counting bushels, barrels, jars, and crocks. The chief cook and Fanche were conducting an experiment, storing samples of fruits, grain, and variously dried, cured, and smoked meats in different chambers of the cave system, and Kel conscientiously went to count those too; if she took the opportunity to inspect the tunnel to the putative look-out post there was no-one to say she shouldn’t, and the two full spirals basilisks, ogres, and miners had already roared and hewn out were pleasing. Its floor was steeply pitched and after walking up and down she estimated it rose nearly fifty feet, almost a quarter of the way, and with the additional labour available during the snows she might reasonably hope to have her look-out post manned sometime in spring. The limestone blocks building up in the cavern were a bonus, and the back of her mind set to wondering how they might best be used.

            Cheered, she returned to paperwork, sending the inventory to the clerks to be copied, and set about written reports. Knowing it would amuse Wyldon she used the bland military brevity they’d discussed, with “the shrines’ dedications having been accepted in the usual manner with additional noises Archpriest Holloran deemed auspicious” and “manifest gods” who “dined and participated in customary dances”. Reading it with enjoyment she added an equally bland paragraph about the range and accuracy she’d managed with the bow, which would provoke disbelieving requests for clarification, noted Lady Yukimi of Queenscove was now resident, and sent it to the clerks. All that remained was a weapons inventory, and she collared Uinse to help, finishing in time for lunch.

            To everyone’s surprise the godlight Weiryn had set in the pillars continued to wash walls and tables with all the colours the basilisks had induced in the stone, perceptibly warm on the skin—which promised to be of even greater use in winter than the saving in candles. Most people were lunching in the fields and despite the remarkable improvements in flavour since the Green Lady’s blessing the only others present were some of Uinse’s men rotating from guard duty and Fanche’s party taking a break from preserving, Irnai and Yuki among them. Kel sat by the seer, listening to happy chatter about kitchen work she liked and a bounty of nuts found beyond the fin. She said little but took ease in Irnai’s peace, and hugged her before watching her skip back to the kitchens.

            Yuki gave her a look. “Planning on adopting a daughter as well, Kel?”

            She gave her a friend a glare but relented. “If she wants it. I’ve come to care for her very much but she seems happy as is.”

            “Does she live with anyone?”

            “Zerhalm and the Rathhausak folk look out for her, and she sleeps in their bit of the barracks.”

            “Have you asked her about adoption?”

            “Not yet. The time’s never seemed right, and there’s Tobe to think of. He and I decided to go ahead at Steadfast, when we talked to Ma, but we didn’t expect it to happen so soon. Da had just agreed when Cricket asked them to come to the dedications, and they went galloping off to see Duke Turomot there and then.”

            Yuki dimpled. “So they said.” She hesitated. “I was surprised, Kel. Do you not want children of your own? I know I do, as soon as possible.”

            Kel shrugged. “I’m not against it, Yuki, but a husband is traditionally required and I’ve no prospect of that. With Tobe it just seemed right—he’s never belonged anywhere, really, and gods know he had a bad time in Queensgrace with that fat bully of an innkeeper.”

            Yuki nodded, knowing of Alvik’s neglect and heavy hand from Neal, but her eyes were concerned, suspecting something of what beset Kel but unsure how she might broach such a topic. “He’s a good boy, and a wonder with horses. Did I tell you I found him grooming Hokage?”

            “No, but I’m not surprised. She’s beautiful, Yuki, and it’s a lovely name.” The Yamani word meant a shape moving in firelight and perfectly suited the mare’s grace and pangare bay colouring. “But he’s an easy mark for a horse.” She grinned. “That’s one reason he likes Wyldon. He told me no-one with horses that splendid could be as bad as Neal said.”

            They parted with laughter and Kel went to groom Hoshi and Peachblossom, deciding the big gelding could do with a ride. He was getting on, having been older than most Palace horses offered to pages when she’d met him a decade before, but still full of energy and attitude. When she returned to the stables in half-armour, Griffin at her waist and glaive in hand, he co-operated happily. She led him to the gatehouse and signed out with Uinse.

            “Not taking an escort, Lady Kel? Standing orders …”

            “I know, but is anyone free? I can’t take any more men off the alures. And I’m sticking to the fields so I won’t be out of sight.”

            “Even so, Lady Kel.” He scratched his head and made a decision. “I know you’ve your glaive but take Crener and Varlan, eh? They’re decent with lances and fair with swords. And I can spare ‘em—I’ve Harrel on sentry-go today ‘cause he ricked his back carrying a grainsack, the idiot, and after Sir Neal fixed it he said he should give it a day or two.”

            “Alright. And I should obey my own orders.”

            Uinse laughed and went to get the men, Kel taking his place. Peachblossom stamped at the delay and the other duty-guard, a wiry, sandy man from somewhere on the Tusaine border who’d fallen into half-hearted banditry when drought struck the region, looked wary.

            “’E’s a real bruiser, in’t ’e, Lady Kel.”

            “If you get on his bad side, Deren, but he’s been a good friend to me. The first I had at the Palace, really, except Sir Neal.”

            “I ’eard you was pages an’ squires together. An’ Sir Merric said you knew ’is wife when you was both littles.”

            He was fishing but Kel didn’t mind. The barbed probing of nobles who resented her success disgusted her in its surprise that an upstart girl—whose family were only in the Book of Copper and who’d grown up among barbarians—could achieve anything; what was Tortall coming to? The curiosity of men she commanded was free of such disrespect.

            “That’s so, Deren. Lady Yukimi’s parents serve at the Yamani court, and we were of an age when my parents went to negotiate a treaty.” She smiled. “It’s odd my best Yamani friend and best Tortallan friend have wound up getting married, but I like it and they’re very happy.”

            “Yus, anyone can see that. And Sir Neal don’t go on about ’er so much now she’s ’ere.”

            “A blessing in itself, eh?”

            Deren grinned agreement. “Yus, it’s that alright. ’E do talk a streak.” He mulled for a moment. “What’s the Islands like, then, Lady Kel? I ’eard that god of theirs laugh with ev’ryone else, an’ if the Princess ’ad it right we could all go there an’ be treated like kings.”

            Kel laughed. “You’d certainly be honoured. I’m not so sure you’d care for the firefly-and-poetry parties you’d be expected to attend.”

            “The what?”

            She explained, to his astonishment, and they talked of strange things Yamanis did until Crener and Varlan arrived with horses saddled and lances in hand. Mounting, Kel secured her glaive and they carefully negotiated Orchan’s steep rise-and-turn—or drop-and-turn—and trotted down the roadway, reaching the moatbridge just ahead of a well-laden wagon hauled by bored-looking oxen; but then to Kel oxen always looked bored. Waving to its driver and guards, Kel headed round the fin, checking in with Brodhelm and his squads, then with one of Adner’s deputies, and finding all going as it ought.

            It felt odd to ride Peachblossom in armour without Jump and her sparrows in attendance but they were with Merric’s and Connac’s patrols today, in the hills towards Mastiff where dense woodland restricted scouting, and Kel’s eyes were sharp enough in open fields. Shaking her head, she sent a Goatstrack man with a nasty blister from unaccustomed tools to see Neal, and a moment later found herself in the right place to save a badly stacked grainsack from toppling off a wagon. Peachblossom snorted as her weight shifted but kept her in the saddle, and Varlan quickly dismounted, climbing onto the wagon to ease her burden and seat it properly. Several firm words later she left a Hannaford trapper doing the stacking looking chagrined but being more careful, and headed back to the old Haven fields.

            Slowly she worked up valley, offering encouragement and helping out. Crener and Varlan proved as competent as Uinse said, and fair company. Gingery Crener was from haMinchi lands but had nothing bad to say of the clan, admitting he had rustled the prize rams he’d been condemned for stealing, as well as one he’d feasted on, so he couldn’t complain, while blond Varlan was a light-fingered product of Corus with the tattooed thumb-webbings that told of multiple convictions.

            “Pickpocketin’, Lady Kel,” he said cheerfully. “Couldn’t resist all them blind bags wiv pockets so big I could get me ’ole arm in there as well as both fambles. I’d prob’ly be doin’ it now if I ’adn’t bin nabbed by Dogs seekin’ some cracknob what took a gixie over Breakbone Falls an’”—he flushed a little—“you know, forced ’er, like. Never did find ’im that I ’eard, the scummer, but they ’ad me instead.”

            Disentangling his slang Kel wondered with an unhappy jolt in her belly if the man who’d beaten and raped a girl might have been Vinson, and what had become of the vile squire after he’d failed his Ordeal and made confession as the Chamber demanded. Duke Turomot had ordered a trial but she’d never heard what came of it—Fief Genlith had a lot of influence, even without Stone Mountain’s backing, and she doubted anyone of Vinson’s status would have been gaoled for long, if at all. Keeping her voice neutral she asked Varlan when that had been, and thought sadly that the date fitted.

            “Do you know what happened to the girl?”

            “’Fraid I don’t, Lady Kel. I was nabbed and wiv two tats they ’ad me up norf to the mines ’fore I could finish cursin’ me luck.”

            “Oh, of course. I’m sorry, Varlan.”

            “No call to be, me Lady. I might o’ known summat, an’ I did ’ear the Dogs didn’t nab no-one for it.”

            “Still, I should have thought. I was just wondering. Women can have a hard time after, ah, being forced.”

            He nodded soberly. “Ay, I knows it. Even from other mots.”

            “Quite so. And as it happens, I know there was a man, um, nabbed for having done exactly that sort of thing a while back.” She didn’t think names were in order and certainly had no intention of explaining why Vinson’s crimes haunted her own guilts. “I wondered then if I should try to do something to help his victims, and your story reminded me of it.”

            “Now aren’t that you all over, Lady Kel?” Crener was listening with interest. “When I hears a story like that I wants to hurt the man but you thinks of helpin’ the woman.”

            Fortunately for Kel they were just reaching Adner, clucking over a blunt scythe, and by the time she’d found the whetstone in her pouch and heard his assessment while he sharpened it her embarrassment had passed. Moving on she spoke to Brodhelm’s senior sergeant, Ersen, and a while later she, Crener, and Varlan dismounted to help unstick a wagon canted in soft earth. Leaving some of its load to await a second trip the sweating wagoneer eventually got it moving, and Kel dusted off her hands, sighing. The sun was westering and with summer fading the shadow of Haven’s knoll reached further and further up valley, inching towards the ragged end of the limestone and the wooded hills that ran north-east to Spidren Wood. Her back ached from shouldering the cart into motion, but there were two work parties still unvisited, one of older children by the cliffs picking mushrooms that flourished where the earth was dampened by a seep, the other of Tirrsmont farmers and their wives, experienced hands with a scythe, further away on the west side cutting hay high on a slope too steep to plough. Each had two spearmen from Ersen’s squad, who wouldn’t like being left out of an otherwise complete tour, and the children should be heading in soon anyway, so she pulled a face at Varlan and Crener.

            “Only two more, thank Mithros.”

            They had almost reached the mushroom-pickers when a scream loud enough to echo from the cliffs brought Kel’s head snapping round to the north. As she was turning Peachblossom a horn-call began to rise but ended in a hoarse, ugly screech, and by the time she’d snatched breath they were at full gallop. The fields here had been harvested several days before and stubble ploughed under, leaving clods along each sillion that burst under Peachblossom’s hooves to spatter her greaves, but he was outpacing Varlan’s and Crener’s smaller mounts and as the distance to the scything party dropped she could see blurred, bulky shapes among the scattering farmers, and one juddering on the ground. A figure seemed to rise into the air and crumple as it landed, bonelessly rolling downslope; to one side another stood stock still, outstretched hands cloaked in a thick, mud-brown haze, and Kel shifted course. If an enemy mage was at work he was always the prime target: whatever else was a threat could never get worse without magic, and might be neutralised. The back of her mind wondered if Varlan and Crener had their griffin-bands on, as standing orders specified, and if not what they might be seeing—if anything. But they were already fifty yards behind, too far to hear her shout. If she could take out the mage before he realised his spells weren’t working on her it wouldn’t matter anyway.

            Reaching the slope Peachblossom slowed and Kel caught up her glaive before rising in the saddle to see what else she faced. In her gut she knew, though it made no sense, and confirmation sank into her mind like a stone through water. The shapes were tauroses, seven she could see, the one on the ground not down but hammering over the body of one of the Tirrsmont women. One had just fallen to a guard, bellowing agony as silver blood sprayed from his spear in its guts, but as he pulled the point free another gored him from behind; she had passed the other guard, chest ripped open and lifeless face staring to the sky. At least one farmer was down, probably dead, and a vile scream from her right told her a second rape had begun.

            The mage was Scanran, draped and hatted in scraggly furs, and she saw him realise he was her target and skip a few paces to one side with a billow of brown magic. To her sight it was no more than spatter in a practice joust with open helms but she guessed that where he had stood a crude replica of him remained; her brain was crystal and he hadn’t moved far enough away as he gathered magic to hurl as she passed. Stretching out her glaive she let him think she was going for the illusion, pressed Peachblossom with her knee, waited and waited and at the last second, close enough to see satisfaction in his face, swung the glaive out and chopped down. At her speed the Yamani steel carved though his raised arm and most of his torso as he was hurled away in a spray of blood, magic vanishing. If he screamed she didn’t hear as Peachblossom whirled to face two tauroses, tiny eyes glinting above flat bull-faces and open, square-toothed mouths, straining pizzles pointing at her.

            She saw Crener and Varlan starting up the slope, lances lowered but horses labouring, the first of the tauroses to complete its rape bellowing exultation with its head to the sky and an unmoving form beneath, the second still hammering away, and the one that had killed the guard starting towards her and the closer two. Where was the seventh? Taruroses came singly, not in herds, and didn’t plan tactics past charge-and-rape or –gore but these were clearly co-operating, and the two closest began to spread out to flank her. Their numbers had to be reduced and she drew Griffin, shifting the blade to her left hand, and charged forward, holding her glaive down until she could bring it slicing up across the face of the one to her right, feeling the resistance of bone and horn up her arm. The gelding was wheeling and rearing under her and she clamped her knees as his forelegs flailed out to crack sickeningly into a tauros face. Silver erupted and it dropped like a stone but as Peachblossom came down he screamed and agony shot through her right thigh. Somewhere bone snapped and she was falling with the gelding, almost pulling her left leg clear as the saddle hit the ground, but not quite.

            Old Naruko hadn’t trained her for nothing and she still had hold of both Griffin and her glaive, but her left leg was pinned by Peachblossom’s struggling bulk and her right was on fire. The tauros she’d missed leapt over his withers, bellowing triumph, and raised one great hoof, pizzle swinging with the motion, before stamping back to hit Peachblossom’s head, snapping it forward and sending a wave of pain through her trapped leg as the gelding juddered and slumped into immobility. A great wail started in her mind as she swung the glaive to chop into the tauros’s upper arm, cutting into bunched muscle and spurting more silver, but the angle was bad and his other hand smashed the glaive away, tearing it from her grasp. Her right thigh bolted agony as she raised it to push at Peachblossom’s croup, dragging her leg from under his flank and something slammed into her face, filling her vision with blazing stars and dislodging her helmet.

            She felt hard hands grab her arms and toss her several feet, breath exploding as she landed and her sight dimming around stars. There were screams somewhere and a heavy thud, and another scream; she didn’t think it was her because she couldn’t draw breath and another blow to her face sent her mind spinning. Things wrenched at her and she was vaguely conscious of air on her skin before pain greater than she’d ever felt ripped into her breast and a white age later a greater agony still speared like fire into her stomach and spine. There was a vast rumbling noise roaring in her ears but somewhere she could feel her hand on Griffin’s hilt as something slammed her again and again amid waves of pain that burned away thought, and she struggled to pull the sword free. It moved and stuck, moved again and she had it, distant fingers curling around the grip as she tried to angle the blade she couldn’t see and fed everything she had into her arm as she pushed it upward. A blast of pure white pain and another noise that was more vibration than sound crumbled her consciousness and she slid into darkness with her last thoughts a terrible regret at how many people she’d failed and a fragmentary prayer for New Hope.

 

§

 

The space was grey void. Blinking what felt like sleep from her eyes Kel tried to look around but there was nothing to see. Memories jumbled in her head and she realised the tauros had killed her, but sick dismay was as much behind glass as the pain she knew she’d felt in dying. Everything was distant until a tall hooded figure stood looking at her.

            “Be easy, Protector. We hoped you might avoid this death also until Shakith said you might no longer do so.”

            When had that been? Kel wondered, but her thoughts seemed as suspended as the rest of her. Did the Black God hear them? His voice soughed wind through bare trees but she couldn’t see beneath his cowl.

            “By my brother’s command you must know the tauroses that assailed you were touched by Uusoae when she conspired with Ozorne, and with others of their kind were in service to King Maggur. It is an interference Mithros and the Goddess have decided they will not permit at this vortex in the timeway, though still they do not deal with Uusoae’s other remnants.”

            In a man Kel would have thought the winter-wind voice exasperated but the idea of the Black God having emotions was one she was glad to see drift away. It sounded as if she was to be sent back, and bleak dread of the pain she was sure would return rose against howling relief.

            “And they are busy elsewhere, as I should be. My daughter’s healing will be only of your life.”

            The pause seemed to last forever but Kel let herself drift in a comforting warmth, seeing the folds of the god’s robe moving slowly. Did he breathe in there? Or was it the air movement she sometimes thought she could feel on her skin. She tried to look down at herself but her head wouldn’t move and the god’s voice resumed.

            “I add one gift of my own giving, Protector, for the death of the necromancer and in the greatness of your soul.” He raised his hand and pulled back his hood. The face was young, aquiline, smooth-skinned yet infinitely weary, and the eyes bottomless pits of shadow shot with silver. Kel’s amazement was as far away as everything but the god. “Fear not for those you send to my judges, nor for yourself in sending them to me. When you shall come yourself before me none shall cry witness against you. And who dies in your service shall find their death their grace, and my mercy infinite. Prepare yourself now. My daughter comes.”

            A wizened hag appeared, black-eyepatched and grinning, lone tooth gleaming in a light Kel couldn’t see. By her side stood a hyena, tongue lolling, and that was as absurd as the cackle from her crooked lips.

            “I told Sakuyo he’d owe me before this was done. And His Spearness.”

            “Daughter, do your business.”

            “Spoilsport. All work and no play. This one needs some teasing.”

            Silver fire blazed and pain screamed in every inch of her body.

 

§

 

Sound cracked. A great weight was lifted and black bulk obscured her vision. She blinked. Her mind was clear, memories and emotions sealed behind glass. The weight had been a tauros body and the black bulk was Quenuresh, face creased with an emotion Kel couldn’t recognise.

            “Protector, you’re—” The spidren’s nostrils flared impossibly widely, pupils contracting to pinpoints. “Godwork. You reek of the Graveyard Hag and her father. They have sent you back.”

            It wasn’t a question but Kel nodded. “Only to you, I expect.” With an effort she pushed herself to one elbow. Her breastplate and cuirasses were gone, her clothing in tatters around her, her stomach and thighs thick with bright, congealing blood, red and silver mixed, but she couldn’t see or feel any of her own still flowing. Her leg stabbed fire and she ached all over but there was no feeling in her left breast, and a numbness in her belly; the breast looked oddly clean against the gore below and something was wrong but she couldn’t decide what and it was low on her list of priorities.

            “What happened?”

            “In the mortal realm? There were seven tauroses and a mage using cloaking spells. I sensed something amiss, and when the horn sounded came with all speed. To judge from what I see, you killed the mage and two tauroses before a third unhorsed you. One was killed by a guard, and three by the men who rode here with you.”

            “Who killed the one that … unhorsed me?”

            “You impaled it without killing it while it was … above you. I broke its neck just now.”

            Kel processed this, and saw the tauros’s head at an impossible angle. She remembered that crack of sound.

            “Thank you. Are Crener and Varlan alive?”

            “The men who rode with you? One killed one tauros but was thrown and died where he fell. The other killed two, but was thrown by the second. He is unconscious and injured, but alive.”

            “The farmers? There were six and two guards.”

            Nostrils flared as the spidren raised her body to swing her head back and forth. “One woman is alive. She hides beneath a dead man. The others are dead. Your soldiers will be here shortly, Protector; they near this hill even now. And your horse is alive, but mortally injured, I fear.”

            “Peachblossom?” A dozen things snapped in Kel’s mind. “Where?”

            Quenuresh shifted her body, legs reaching over Kel, and she could see Peachblossom’s unmoving back a few yards away. “He is stunned. Would you wish me to make the mercy stroke before he wakes?”

            “No, never.”

            She struggled to sit, feeling drying blood crinkle on her stomach, and grabbed at Quenuresh’s leg to pull herself up; pain stabbed her hand and the spidren hissed softly.

            “Protector, you are naked and covered in blood. Godwork or no, you need a healer.”

            “It can wait, but please cloak me if you can before the men get here. They won’t understand.” Thoughts reeled and burgeoned in her suddenly aching head. “And please don’t contradict anything I say. The injured are the priority, and I have to hold everything together.”

            Quenuresh’s eyes glittered for a long moment. “Very well, my Lady.”

            Something struck Kel about that but it too could wait. She took a step toward Peachblossom and stumbled as her right leg buckled. Pain lanced up her thigh and points prickled across her back as a solid bar stopped her falling and Quenuresh hissed again.

            “Spidrens are not designed for this. Wait.”

            The prickling on her back vanished and a moment later she felt her legs swept from under her, tipping her back until elastic bars caught her. She moved effortlessly towards Peachblossom and realised she was suspended in spidren webbing that Quenuresh held in her two front legs, scuttling forward on the rest. Gently Kel was deposited by Peachblossom’s head, and painfully manoeuvred until she could with an effort lift it onto her good thigh. Over his flank she could see one of his hind legs was broken, sharp-ended bone peeping white through skin.

            “Your men see only your head.” Quenuresh’s voice was very dry. “Perhaps you might reassure them.”

            Kel dragged her gaze from Peachblossom’s leg to see Sergeant Ersen and four men dismounting twenty yards away, swords drawn and faces grim. A trembling thunder of hoofbeats told her others were close behind and she worked her mouth to summon saliva.

            “Ersen! Over here.”

            He stopped, staring as his jaw dropped.

            “Lady Kel? You’re—”

            “I know. Tauros got most of my clothing before I got it. Quenuresh is cloaking me. Now, listen.” She gave in to her howling heart. “Send someone back to New Hope at the gallop. I want Zerhalm here now and I want Seaver or any mage available to activate the spellmirror to Mastiff and get the Wildmage here yesterday. Top priority. We need healers here soonest, with transport for two injured. And I need clothes, a robe, anything. Got it?”

            Ersen nodded, jaw flapping until he closed it with a gulp.

            “Then do it now.” Her voice cracked command, Ersen wheeled, shouting at someone, and she swung attention to the soldiers staring beside him. “Either Crener or Varlan’s unconscious somewhere, injured, and Quenuresh says there’s a woman hiding under a body. Find them, do all you can. Check the rest but I think they’re all dead. Go.

            They went, calling to others, and Kel cradled Peachblossom’s head, not looking at his leg but crooning softly even while hoping he’d stay unconscious until Zerhalm could make it. A thought came to her and she looked up at Quenuresh.

            “While I was dead the Black God told me these tauroses had been touched by Uusoae. Can you tell me what that means?”

            The spidren blinked, forehead creasing. “That explains much. If the Queen of Chaos fed power to these immortals it would work against their nature, which is solitary and as dim in mind as they are strong in body. It must be what made them able to work together, with the mage you slew. It will also be why the Black God sent you back, for Uusoae’s agents may not slay mortals.”

            Kel thought about this, listening to the soldiers dealing with bodies, dead and from shouts alive, until Sergeant Ersen’s voice intruded. Focusing, she saw him a dozen feet away, sword sheathed but his face sheened with sweat and eyes as white as staring.           

            “Lady Kel. I can’t see but your head. Are you sure you’re alright?”

            She wasn’t, but apart from her leg she could feel no serious pain and her mind was clear; purged and sealed, anyway. “Yes, Ersen, I’m fine. Just indecent.” Command returned to her voice. “Report, please.”

            He swallowed, still staring. “We found the woman, my Lady, under her husband. She’s not wounded so far as I can tell but just stares. I don’t reckon she’s seeing anything.” He swallowed again. “Varlan’s alive. Arm and collar-bone bust and out cold, but Morri says he’ll live. Crener’s dead. Looks like he went over his lance and broke his neck. His horse is alright but we had to kill Varlan’s. The other refugees are dead and Wallan and Pevis. The men are gored and the women …”

            “I saw.”

            “Should we … your horse is a goner, my Lady. His leg’s—”

            “No. Where’s Zerhalm?”

            “On his way, my Lady. The Wildmage should’ve been sent for by now. Messenger reached New Hope and healers are half-way here.”

            “Right.” Her thoughts turned. “Do you have your notebook, Ersen?”

            He nodded, reaching to his beltpouch. “Who needs to know what?”

            “Lord Wyldon at Mastiff and General Vanget at Northwatch. The spellmirror will reach both. Tell them we’ve been attacked by seven tauroses under the control of a Scanran mage who was cloaking them. All are dead but we’ve lost three soldiers and five civilians. The tauroses were chaos-touched during the Immortals War and have been in Scanra until now. They fought with intelligence—ganged up with one or more in front so another could come in behind.” She heard his muttered curse. “There may be more the same, but I don’t know how many or where. The news must go to Masters Numair and Harailt urgently.”

            “Got it, my Lady, but beggin’ your pardon, how do you know where they came from and about their bein’ chaos-touched? I’ll be asked.”

            She made a snap decision though it wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. “Quenuresh can smell the chaos on them. Get to it, Ersen.”

            He saluted and turned but then swung back.

            “What about you, my Lady? They’ll be wanting to know that too.”

            She looked through him, stroking Peachblossom. News of her death and return was not for a field report. “My leg’s bruised. I’ll be fine. Go.”

            He went and she found Quenuresh looking at her intently. The immortal’s voice was a murmur, pitched for Kel alone.

            “I can indeed smell the chaos now I know it’s there, but I did not know where or when they came by it, nor can I guess where they might have been since. This tale will not do.”

            “I know, but announcing the Black God told me at Lord Mithros’s command isn’t … sensible.”

            “Mortals make everything so complicated.” Quenuresh shook her head. “So Mithros was in this also.”

            “I didn’t see him. Just the Black God and an old woman with an eyepatch he said was his daughter.” Kel frowned. “There was a hyena.”

            The spidren nodded. “They are sacred to the Graveyard Hag and often accompany her.”

            “The god said Mithros commanded him to tell me about the tauroses, and because they were chaos-touched wouldn’t permit what he called interference.” Another memory unfurled. “Then he forgave me.”

            Quenuresh stared at her. “He did what?”

            “Forgave me.” She found the god’s words cleanly in her mind and repeated them. “His hood was back.”

            “You saw his face?” Shock hissed in Quenuresh’s whisper.

            “Yes. So young and sad.”

            “Acchh. Protector, that has not happened in an eon. Our lore says such forgiveness has been granted to a living mortal only thrice since the Godwars. Even after that ceremony of yours I am surprised. Weiryn and Sarra visit the Godborn whenever they can and the signs of the others I put down to your killing the necromancer, but this … this is of another order. Truly the world turns here.”

            Kel shrugged. Gods did what they did. Her grateful wonder was insulated with everything else and she could see Zerhalm pulling up his lathered horse and dismounting.

            “Over here, Zerhalm.”

            He approached, face white. “Lady Kel, you’re—”

            “Doesn’t matter. Peachblossom.” She swallowed. “His right hind.”

            Zerhalm knelt by the gelding, hissing. “My Lady, I can’t fix this. His hock and gaskin are both smashed. I’m sorry.”

            “Set it as best you can while he’s out. Daine’s coming.”

            His look was intent but he dropped to his knees and gingerly began to feel for the shape of the shattered bones. When he spoke his voice was neutral though his Scanran accent thickened.

            “Only your head is visible, my Lady. What’s happening?”

            “I know, Zerhalm. I’m alright. Tauros got my clothes but not me. Quenuresh is covering me until I can get decent.”

            “Are you injured?”

            “My leg’s bruised. Peachblossom got kicked in the head too.”

            Zerhalm glanced up at her, worry in his eyes. “I’ll look when this is done. But I can only line up these bones, Lady Kel. I can’t heal them.”

            He looked doubtful but went on easing bone fragments into place. A larger group arrived, Neal and Seaver among them. Dismounting, Neal ran towards her, stopping abruptly with his mouth falling open but she was so tired of explanations.

            “Neal, here please.” She eased her injured thigh out, gritting her teeth at the stabbing pain as he approached, face whitening when he saw Peachblossom’s leg.

            “Kel, I can’t see you below the neck. What happened?”

            “Kneel down and give me your hand. Tauros hit my thigh when it knocked Peachblossom over. I’m alright, but it tore my clothes off.”

            Hesitantly he knelt and reached his hand for her to take. Looking down she guided it to the purpled and banded swelling filling her thigh.

            “I can feel dried blood.”

            “Just a bad scratch, Neal. It’s the bruising that hurts.”

            “Gods, yes.” His face became remote and green fire spilled from his hands, dulling the pain. She sighed her relief. “The bruise is bone-deep but your femur’s not cracked. Even with healing you’ll be limping for a week. Wait.” His face returned to the present as he frowned. “There’s magic in you already, something very odd.”

            She leaned forward to rest her head on his shoulder as he worked, not caring that her invisible breast rested on the mail of his arm, and whispered to him. “Neal, the gods healed me. Don’t shout, but I think I died and was sent back.” He looked his startlement and she gripped his other shoulder. “No, I’m not mad. It happened, but I am not talking about it here. And the Black God did not send me back to die from my wounds anyway, so believe me, they are already healed.”

            “Mithros.” His free hand made the gods’ circle. “But they didn’t heal your thigh?”

            She managed a smile but it was just movement of her face. “I wasn’t dying from it, I suppose.”

            “Then what …”

            “Shh. It doesn’t matter now.” His eyes were haunted but her attention was on Zerhalm, pushing the last bone-fragment straight. “Can you look at his head?”

            “Ay, if I can get to it, Lady Kel.”

            She realised that to everyone else the gelding’s head was resting on thin air and eased it to the ground, blessing the relief Neal’s magic was affording her thigh. As she settled again he put both his hands on her together and green fire spilled into her more densely. Zerhalm crouched by Peachblossom’s head.

            “That’s as much as I can do now, Kel. It’ll need more later but you can probably stand. If there’s nothing else.” Neal’s gaze burned at her.

            “Nothing broken or bleeding, Neal. I meant what I said. Think about it.” Her glance took in soldiers rigging a horse-litter for Varlan, arm splinted and bound to his chest, and huddled around the blank woman; Jarna—the name came to Kel. The widow Jarna. Others were loading bodies into what should have been a hay wagon and more stood with Seaver, staring. A bundle dangled from his hand, reminding her that however invisible she was also naked but for the tatters of her shirt, and she caught his eye. “Is that clothes for me, Seaver?”

            He nodded, white-faced. “I grabbed a tunic and breeches, Kel. There’s some towels too. Do you want them now?”

            “Please.” She leaned on Neal to stand and slowly try her leg, sighing as it held. “Thanks, Neal. You’re a marvel.”

            “Hardly.” His voice was rough but he looked happier now she was upright. Reaching out she plucked the bundle from a surprised Seaver, realised he couldn’t see her arm, and looked an apology before turning to Quenuresh. “Can you shield me completely for a moment?”

            One  great leg moved slightly, and from the expressions on Neal’s and Seaver’s faces it was clear she and the bundle had vanished.

            “It’s alright, I’m still here.”

            “They cannot hear you.”

            “Oh.” She undid the knot and fished through the contents, then took out a towel.

            “Wait.” Quenuresh muttered something and abruptly the towel was damp in Kel’s hands.

            “Thank you.” She ripped off the shreds of clothing that remained and began wiping the worst of the dried blood from her stomach and thighs. Under her brows she glanced at the spidren, wondering why it didn’t bother her to be naked before the immortal, then looked more openly. “You’re actually very kind, aren’t you?”

            Quenuresh raised her eyebrows. “There are mortals who would tell you otherwise, if they could.”

            “I’m sure. That tauros, too, for which my thanks. But you didn’t have to do this for me.”

            “We have a treaty.”

            “No, I meant the towel. And the cloaking.”

            She hadn’t known a spidren’s smile could be gentle.

            “The gods will be watching and plainly believe you should be aided. It’s always worth attending to those they treat so. Or perhaps I find you worth loyalty, Protector, and kindness follows. The water spell is useful dealing with young spidrens. They are as prone to becoming sticky as all younglings.”

            A genuine smile lit Kel’s face for a moment but other emotions boiled in its wake and she went still, wrestling her Yamani mask into place. Quenuresh eyed her curiously.

            “You do that well. I am no healer but I have become a keen observer of mortals, and I think you will need to let emotion loose, soon. It is no shame, surely, after such a thing as you have borne today?”

            “Maybe not. But it has to wait.”

            She dried herself with a second towel and with relief pulled on breeches and shirt. The soiled cloths went into the bag, and seeing the blood-soaked remains of her old breeches and small clothes where she had lain scooped those up also. Bits of her armour lay scattered about, with the tauros’s body, but that didn’t matter now. She nodded to Quenuresh, watching her with another undecipherable expression, and felt the spell drop with a slight tingle.

            “Kel!” Neal caught her into a fierce hug but she couldn’t return it, and eased away from him.

            “I’m alright, Neal. Peachblossom isn’t.”

            Extracting herself she went back to the gelding, and knelt again by his head. Zerhalm’s expression was bleak.

            “I should try to wake him, Lady Kel. I’ve stopped his leg bleeding and healed his concussion as best I can, but he needs water. Ersen’s getting some.”

            She nodded, and took Peachblossom’s head back onto her lap.

            “Go ahead.”

            He spread his hands on poll and forehead, concentrating, and after a moment ears twitched, the muzzle moved slightly.

            “Come back now, boy. Come back.” She stroked him, heart bursting. His head moved again, then bucked in her hands as he whinnied. “Hold still boy! You’re hurt. Hold still!” Zerhalm’s hands pressed against him, glowing. “It’s alright, boy. I’m alright, but your rear hind’s a mess. Daine’s coming. Just hang on. Don’t move, you’ll make it worse. Shh now. It’s alright. We did well. The enemy’s all dead. Shh.”

            How much he understood she didn’t know but he quieted, letting her hold him and snorting softly, shuddering with pain until Zerhalm pulsed more magic into his head, and returned to his leg, holding it as still as he could. Ersen was waiting with a bucket and Kel inched forward, trying to raise Peachblossom’s shoulder enough for him to drink.

            “Let me, Protector.”

            Carefully positioning herself, Quenuresh shot web from her spinnerets onto her two foremost legs, making a rough cradle, and with an effort Kel lifted Peachblossom enough for her to slip it under his chest and withers. Bracing herself Quenuresh lifted smoothly, slowly, angling him forward so his head could reach into the bucket as Ersen held it for him. Eventually he seemed eased, and the spidren lowered him slowly back to rest his head on Kel’s lap again.

            Dusk was deepening and around her Kel was aware of men setting watchfires, carefully clearing ground and laying stones to stop anything else catching. Others dragged tauroses into a heap and piled wood lower on the hill to burn the body of the mage. The temperature was dropping and fires welcome. A blanket settled over her shoulders and Neal sat beside her, offering a waterbottle. She drank thirstily, feeling better at once. Seaver had another blanket to spread over Peachblossom—his own, she saw, which she’d left folded in his stall.

            Seaver gave a pale smile. “Tobe sent it. He’s worried sick.”

            He would be, of course, but there wasn’t anything she could do. She nodded thanks , watching him carefully tuck the blanket around the gelding’s barrel and cover his wounded leg while she leaned against Neal, hands stroking Peachblossom. Resisting the sleepiness of healing she let her mind drift until it was time for the gelding to drink again.

 

* * * * *

 

It was past midnight when Daine arrived. Kel had had more clothes fetched and as the hawk cried and circled down between the fires a soldier stood, holding them up, and took them a few yards into the trees before politely retreating. The hawk perched and glided down, and a few moments later Daine emerged from the trees, face drawn with worry.

            “Kel, I’m sorry to have taken so long. I was at Steadfast. Peachblossom’s hurt?”

            Mutely Kel pointed to the gelding’s leg as Seaver drew away the blanket and Daine’s eyes widened.

            “Odd’s bobs, what did that?”

            “Tauros. He was rearing and it charged him from behind. Can you …” She let her voice trail away before it could break.

            “I’ll try, but it’s bad, Kel.”

            Cross-legged, Daine laid hands on Peachblossom’s gaskin and her face became remote. To Kel’s surprise she could see copper fire spilling from Daine’s hands and winding around and through the torn skin from cannon to hip and she twitched. Quenuresh leant down, voice soft,

            “You see the wild magic? Do you see the great roil of it that is the Godborn or only that which spills from her?”

            Kel shook her head, still watching twining strands of fire being absorbed. Peachblossom trembled and she soothed him.

            “Then your vision is probably just a residue of the Hag’s healing. It may linger a while, but I would expect it to fade.”

            “Good.” She didn’t need any more strange sights.

            Quenuresh laughed softly. “You are learning. Yet it is beautiful.”

            It was, and Kel watched as more and more sank into Peachblossom’s leg until it glowed. Neal brought a roll and tea, fortunately the soldier’s kind, and she ate and drank gratefully. It was dawn when Daine straightened, wiping her forehead.

            “He’ll live, Kel, but he won’t fight or joust again. I’m sorry, but the bones weren’t just broken, they were smashed to bits. Zerhalm did a fine job or I’d have been too late to do anything. He should be able to walk and trot, but he’ll not be able to gallop or carry you in armour.”

            “So long as he lives, Daine. He’ll be happy at pasture, won’t you, boy? He’s earned that.” She looked at her friend, seeing how tired she looked and knew she’d pushed herself hard to get here, as well as pouring out magic. “Thank you. I … couldn’t bear losing him like this.”

            Daine smiled. “It’s alright, Kel. You never ask for yourself and he’s an old friend. He’s groggy but he can walk back if he goes carefully. And I’m afraid people are waiting to hear from both of us.”

            With Quenuresh’s help Peachblossom was helped up, whinnying softly as weight came on to his leg. The men standing round the fires watched with wonder, and scurried to gather gear when Kel nudged him into a walk. The spidren stayed with them to the foot of the slope where the big gelding could walk more easily, then made her farewell.

            “I must return to my kin. They will wonder why I have been so long.”

            “Of course.” Kel turned to her. “Is there anything you can tell me about that mage? You said you sensed his spells.”

            “Yes, when he moved out of the woods and cast them more widely.” She considered. “He was quite powerful, but I think his Gift was largely in concealment and illusion and I am armed against those. I did not recognise what you left of him and his power was not such that his name would have been spoken where I might hear it. I doubt he could have controlled those tauroses alone for long.”

            Kel frowned. “Define long?”

            “Weeks, maybe.”

            “Just a shepherd then. Not the master.”

            “Indeed. I will think on it.”

            “Thank you.” Kel hesitated but trusted her instincts. “You don’t have a hand I can shake, Quenuresh, and hugging you isn’t possible either. But …” She leaned forward and as she had seen Irnai do reached a hand to touch Quenuresh’s cheek, finding the skin soft, and let her arm drop. “Thank you for everything. I will tell the King that at its first hard test you have honoured our treaty in the fullest measure.”

            The spidren’s eyes gleamed. “To be surprised by a mortal twice in the same day at my age. Life around you is interesting, Protector.”

            She moved away, shadow huge in the early light, and Kel caught up with Peachblossom. The trip to New Hope was slow, but no-one said anything as she walked beside the horse who’d been everything to her. Who still was. Climbing the roadway at last, her leg aching fiercely and Peachblossom’s obviously as tender as a sore tooth, they were met by a charging Tobe, face crumpled with emotions that darkened as she and Daine gently told him of the gelding’s new limitations. Faces peered soberly at them as they passed the gatehouse, but Kel couldn’t deal with them now. She left Tobe to care for Peachblossom in the stables with a hug that threatened to break her control, and took simple reports from Morri and Fanche on Varlan, recovering but asleep, and Jarna, mute but physically unhurt, before asking Neal and Daine to come with her to the spellmirror. Reluctantly she included Brodhelm and Uinse, whose eyes were dark with sorrow for Crener.

            She put a hand on his arm. “He did well, Uinse, and Varlan very well. You were right to make me take them with me or I’d not be here. Wallan and Pevis died too, and Esner’s hurting. We’ll see to them all tomorrow. Now, come please. I’m only going to do this once, and it’s not to be repeated to anyone. You’ll see why.”

            Neal sealed the conference room with green fire before working the spellmirror to summon Vanget and Wyldon. When their concerned faces peered out, seemingly side by side, she cut short greetings and began a swift narration of why she’d been where, with whom, when the scream and choked-off horn call came. The combat sequence unreeled, and she emphasised the initial surprise of the attack, felling one guard, the other who’d done his best but been taken from behind, the tactical sense of the tauroses, and the mage with mud-brown magic, adding what Quenuresh had said about his power. Her rape she passed over by saying she’d been knocked out for an unknown period; emotion clawed and she knew the rigidity of her mask was scaring Neal and Daine.

            She took a deep breath. “I woke in a grey place I can’t describe. The Black God was there.” Word for word she told them what he’s said about the tauroses, but omitted his forgiveness and the Hag’s words, saying only she’d appeared and sent Kel back.

            “You died.” Vanget’s voice was very flat and Kel shrugged.

            “Apparently I’m not allowed to just yet. Or not from this cause.” She told him what Quenuresh had said about the rules binding Uusoae, and Daine abruptly nodded.

            “That’s right. She’s bound in starfire for starting the Immortals War, but if these were chaos creatures the gods would intervene. Uusoae’s rebellion roused Father Universe and Mother Flame.” Everyone stared at the Wildmage, who shrugged. “Numair and the King know the story. Ask them if you must, but what Quenuresh said makes sense.”

            Both commanders drummed fingers in such unison Kel almost smiled.

            “Very well, but I want Numair’s analysis as soon as possible.” Vanget growled something low in his throat. “Another cursed mage.”

            “And not the only one.” He stared at Kel. “The Black God said ‘others of their kind’ about the tauroses. I don’t know if that meant chaos-touched ones, but if Maggur’s keeping immortals of any kind to send at us in groups he’ll need more than one mage.”

            Daine nodded again, face bleak. “Yes. Ozorne needed lots.” She frowned. “But he had lots. Maggur doesn’t and he would need them. His giants volunteer, but no other immortals I know of.”

            There was a nasty silence until Wyldon, rubbing his brow with a drawn and set face, looked up. “Keladry, gods know I’m sorry to ask this, but is it at us? or was it at you? I really don’t like an attack on a remote group happening just when you were the nearest support, and not fully equipped or guarded.” He raised a hand, eyes dark. “I mean no criticism. You were being careful—two lancers as escort and men everywhere around, but it feels like a strike at you specifically. Closely observed and exactly timed. If the gods hadn’t intervened …”

            Kel’s mind became cold, turning this over. “Maybe. But I don’t think so. An assassin, yes, or a war party targeting me. But this? It doesn’t seem … I don’t know,  but it doesn’t feel right.”

            “He takes hostages and used a necromancer. Why not this?”

             She groped for a thought. “Taking hostages is honourless, Wyldon, but it’s direct. Obey or your child dies. Your wife or friend dies. And I don’t think he ever liked Blayce. Used him, surely, and wanted the killing devices, but it was Blayce who wanted the children to suffer, Maggur just looked away. Stenmun did his dirty work for him. And to plan this … I can’t see it.”

            “Well, I’ll take that under advisement.” Vanget’s voice had become brisk. “You’ve given us what matters, Lady Knight, and we’ll take it from here. You need to rest, and so does Daine.” His face darkened. “I’m sick and angry this happened, and very grateful you’re still with us, however it came about. And not just because you’re obviously at the heart of the gods’ attentions in this war, and we need you badly. You’ve lost people today and I know how that hurts, but the enemies are dead and you’re not.” He frowned. “Even if you were. Gods. Either way, go, sleep.”

            His half of the spellmirror blanked, and she looked at Wyldon.

            “He’s right. Gods all bless, Keladry.”

            “I think they already have, Wyldon.”

            Neal had a very odd expression but before he could start again on her need for healing or offer some vile tea she summoned strength for some crisp commander mode. Terse discussion arranged a temporary duty schedule with a white-faced Brodhelm and Uinse, and Kel reluctantly agreed burials could be delayed a day so Neal could try to get the mute widow in a state to attend her husband’s last journey. Then she sent them all on their ways, showing Daine to the nearest guest quarters, and finally made it to her own. The washroom and privy behind most doors beckoned and with water trickling into the basin and her face stifled in a towel she let herself go at impossible last.

            Eventually still she hauled herself up and stripped to sponge herself down properly. The cold water stung; or didn’t, and she looked at herself with dawning horror. Her left breast that had been so oddly clean was flesh only in part, its dome replaced by a blunt, smooth greyness that had no sensation. Oblong marks on the boundary with living skin traced the imprint of flat teeth and her mons was similarly scarred, grey, numb hairless lines reaching jaggedly across her inner thighs. She traced them, feeling nothing, realising they were from barbs on the tauros’s pizzle and that she had died from bloodloss. Her living flesh stung and there were little burns spotted around. The inner numbness was still there, and she knew the lines of damage must extend inside her, that Yuki’s question had been unalterably answered. Whatever kind words gods said and however they seemed to dance about her with cries of encouragement, this too had been taken from her, as if her stigmata as a female knight and lonely chastity were not to trusted and true incapacity were needed, her life made an empty vessel filled only with others’ service. Daine had told her to be careful what she prayed for and her half-meant thought about dedicating herself to the Goddess had been acted on by higher powers.

            My daughter’s healing will be only of your life.

            She lay, silent tears rolling into her pillow, arms by her sides. Sleep, when bone-tiredness finally claimed her, was as dreamless as stone.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven — Explosions

October

 

The burials took place in bright sunshine and cold, still air, couples sharing a grave and soldiers side-by-side with farmers. The plots had been dug in a row next to the mass grave, beyond its edging of burned timbers, and as the first New Hope burials Kel could set her own precedents. Lacking any priest she led the ceremony, and at each grave had grieving kin and comrades speak of the lives that had been lived. The widow Jarna, sufficiently recovered in her wits to attend, could only sob, but six orphans recalled their parents’ care and gruffly emotional soldiers friends’ bravery and foibles. For Crener Kel spoke of his cheerful admission of the rams he’d rustled and lamb he’d eaten. When all had spoken who would, she named all eight dead not as refugees of Tirrsmont or convicts and soldiers of the realm but as men and women of New Hope, and invoked the Black God’s peace for them all, his words rising to her lips with a careful twist and silent prayer.

            “They died in our service and I pray they shall find their deaths their grace, and his mercy infinite. So mote it be.”

            “So mote it be.”

            To everyone’s surprise save hers chimes rang and wind soughed in stillness. People glanced at one another but she led them away without a word, only speaking again as they reached the picketed horses to send everyone briskly about their work. The children who’d come she saw back to New Hope herself with Neal, Seaver, and men of Crener’s, Varlan’s, Wallan’s, and Pevis’s squads.

            Olleric’s squad, who’d drawn the unenviable duty of burning the tauroses, reported in late afternoon, faces white. The job was done—mostly, for something had been at the corpses.

            “The heads was missin’, Lady Kel.”

            Kel blinked. Olleric was a sensible, experienced man. “Missing?”

            “Cut clean off, and gone. It looked like single blows.”

            “You’d need an axe or a good sword for that sort of thing.”

            “Or a steel wing, maybe. The bodies wasn’t messed with otherwise, but there was a stormwing smell to ’em.”

            What stormwings might want with tauros heads Kel couldn’t imagine and had no wish to try; nor could she summon pity for dead immortals and important matters beckoned, so she shoved the puzzle to the back of her mind, thanked Olleric, and dismissed his squad to the bathhouse.

            She had used the delay in the burials while Neal worked with Jarna to have quiet conversations with Varlan, getting his version of what had happened, and subsequently with Ersen, Brodhelm, Merric, Uinse, Jacut, Fanche, and Saefas. On the evening of the funerals she stood after the meal and ordered everyone to assemble on the green. The weather had begun to turn, fitful wind promising rain; coats were drawn tight, and Kel stood on a plinth she’d had the carpenters make by the flagpole. She hadn’t demanded immortals come but the basilisks and ogres were there.

            “This is going to sound cold, and I’m sorry for that, but it matters. You all know Crener, Wallan, and Pevis died, and Varlan and I didn’t.” She saw puzzled looks. “What you don’t know is that Varlan and I were wearing our griffin-bands, and those who died weren’t. They’d complained the feathers itched under their helmets, and either not sewn them in as ordered or taken them out again.”

            Heads dropped. She knew her voice was flat, the rebuke too blunt, but couldn’t find the mode; the lie about her survival was a sick feeling.

            “No, it’s not that simple. A griffin-band won’t save anyone from anything by itself. But yes, it is that simple. There was a mage spewing illusions that didn’t fool me or Varlan, but fooled our dead. And I noticed something else, because while I was indecent after the attack and cloaked by Quenuresh, men there weren’t looking at a naked woman—so I wonder how many of them had their griffin-bands on too.” She focused on the soldiers, her gaze raking them. Maybe some on the hill had had their bands on, but if so they weren’t saying. “It was in my standing orders. It still is, and they will be obeyed. Griffin-bands are added to weekly inspections, and anyone missing one is on latrines for a week. Any sentry or guard without one on duty anywhere is on latrines for a year.”

            She didn’t pause despite the shock in their faces.

            “Civilians, wear bands when you’re outside the walls.  There are plenty and more are being made. My stash of feathers is nearly gone but we should have more from the winter moult soon. Keep the bands with you, get used to wearing them. Children too, all ages. Sir Neal, Sir Merric, Sir Seaver, and the Company Eight mages will hold classes in the evenings, starting tomorrow, on how to deal with it if you can see reality and others are seeing illusion. I expect to see everyone there. New Hope will not lose one more life we needn’t lose.”

            She paused, breath steaming, seeing unease at her harsh voice.

            “We all know, most of us twice over, what it is to lose people to enemy mages doing something we didn’t expect. And that mage who hid the tauroses until they were only feet away won’t have been the only one King Maggot has. We’ll see more, and maybe they’ll kill more of us. But they won’t do it just because they can chuck some illusion at us.”

            Another breath, her mind and voice very cold.

            “And there’s one more thing. I hear there’s talk about Quenuresh being there but not helping, so know this, all of you. She came at a run as soon as she heard the horn. She killed the last tauros when it had me down. She knew Jarna was alive and guided soldiers to her. And she saved more than my life and modesty—she helped save Peachblossom, and if I hear one word slandering her courage or integrity I will make that person eat their lies whether it takes words or fists or steel.” She made one try at a better note to end on. “I know she’s frightening, and no beauty. But so am I, and she was true to her word in our need. To go on doubting her isn’t caution, but shame, and I won’t have it. That’s all.”

            She stepped down and walked away to her rooms accompanied only by an anxious Tobe, stealing sidelong glances. The soldiers had it coming, and not even Merric or Uinse, who knew what a vital difference a griffin-band could make, had enforced her order; nor Brodhelm, though he’d not make such a mistake again after their private meeting. But whether she had authority to order civilians to wear anything was debatable, and she’d carry that if it meant one fewer trip to Haven. But she knew she should have been able to handle it better, less abrasively, and regretted that as distantly as the warmth and ease she couldn’t summon. When she got to her room Tobe followed her in, face twisting.

            “Are you angry with me? I don’t always wear my band but I will, I promise.”

            This at least she could hope to do right and sat, enfolding him in her hug. The pressure against her side and unfeeling breast was a balm.

            “No, Tobe, I’m not angry with you. I’m angry with myself, really, for not having realised so many soldiers weren’t obeying my order. I wanted to shake them up so they wear them from now on, always, and no more forget than you’d leave Peachblossom or Hoshi all lathered to play.”

            “You sounded really hard and cold.” His voice was small against her shoulder. “I’ve never heard you like that.”

            “I’m sorry, Tobe. I … it was pretty hard on me, the other day. And then Peachblossom …” She bit her lip. “I know it’s hard on you too.”

            “He’s alright. I’ve rubbed him down every morning and evening, and Zerhalm sees him every few hours. He’s standing better on the leg now.”

            “That’s good.” She hadn’t known of Zerhalm’s continuing care and was filled with gratitude to the Scanran, “But he has to retire, you know? I won’t be able to ride him into battle again, or to joust. And I won’t be able to ride him at all in armour.” A thought she’d been holding off crystallised and she eased back, searching the boy’s face. “Actually, Tobe, you’re the person who should ride him, when he can walk more easily. Daine said we should give it at least two weeks, though.”

            The Wildmage had left the day after the attack for Northwatch, to explain more to Vanget about divine rules governing chaos creatures. She’d told Kel something of how she knew about them, leaving her friend bemused but with a vision of Kitten loudly scolding Lord Mithros that was a glowing coal of comfort amid the darkness in her head.

            “Me?” Tobe’s eyes were round.

            “You. No-one else can ride him anyway, and he’ll need more than pasture to be happy.” She tried to think it through. “I wonder … Going up and down the roadway’s not going to be easy for him, for a while. We could build a little stable in the corral for him. It’ll be too cold in winter, but he might get six weeks down there. Do you think he’d like that?”

            Tobe did, and when asked Peachblossom agreed it would be better than a stall with no view. He was subdued, perhaps from pain, but also at having let Kel down. She and Tobe spent a long time with her arms round the gelding’s neck and his around her waist, and a few days later, with demands of harvest slackening, she gave orders. Limestone blocks from the passageway to the lookout post made a snug building with room for three or four horses, and after petrifying the roof-shingles Amiir’aan (with help from St’aara) set warmth in a half-dozen blocks placed round the inside, a spell he could renew every few days. Thereafter the now slow and awkward gelding could usually be seen in the field outside the corral, exercising his leg with or without Tobe’s help and the encouragement of Jump or the sparrows. His continuing docility told Kel he was still in pain, and she quietly added to the gateguards’ duties each dawn and dusk the despatch of pairs—no-one went anywhere outside alone—to open and close the locking iron gate the smiths had made for the gap in the corral wall.

            Her speech had other repercussions, good and bad. Discipline tautened and her orders were obeyed, but the harshness she’d shown and the coldness she couldn’t keep from voice and manner because all her warmth was walled away, as untouchable as the pain behind glass, leached happiness from those around her. No-one bantered with her any more, and if the faces that obeyed lost no respect—quite the contrary—they no longer showed many smiles. They even tried to be openly warm to Quenuresh, when the spidren came to provide another batch of webbing and stayed to talk to St’aara and Kuriaju, but the best Kel could manage was grave thanks.

             She was worrying people, she knew, especially her friends, and Neal was getting harder to fend off, but gave her the wrong opening one night at evening meal when her silence led him to broach the subject with too many ears about even if she’d wanted to discuss it. She cut him off, seeing the hurt in his eyes, and when they’d finished eating took him outside to the kitchen garden while there was no-one to hear.

            “Neal, I know you mean well but if I won’t discuss it with you in private why ever would you think I’ll discuss it in the messhall?”

            He swallowed hurt and tried to be healerly. “Kel, you have to talk about it sometime. It’s killing you.”

            “No, Neal, it isn’t, any more. It killed me at the time. Now it’s just what I have to live with.” He jerked in shock. “And what would you like me to say anyway? That I got myself raped to death in an open field, and yes, it hurt more than anything in life ever did or could? That the Black God had his very odd daughter heal me and sent me back because the tauroses broke some divine rule, but not anyone else who died on their horns or pizzles, sorry, Jarna, I don’t know why? That I’ve new scars to add to my ugly collection? Neal, I am exactly as gods arranged for me to be, and so are our dead, and until I get the chance of dying again and getting it right second time, none of that’s going to change. So leave it, please. It’s just one more thing I can’t do.”

            He was white but held his ground, shaking slightly, though whether with grief or rage, and if so at whom or what, Kel couldn’t tell and found she didn’t much care; or couldn’t.

            “Kel, say every word of that’s true, though I don’t believe the gods wanted anyone dead or you crippled like this—and you are, as much as Peachblossom—I still tell you you have got to talk about it with someone. If not me, then Yuki, or Fanche.” He gestured helplessly. “Peliwin Archer, even. She knows what it means to be raped, by a man anyway. Or one of the gods, in private prayer, if no mortal will do. Kept inside you it’s poison, and it has to be drained. You agreed it was true for the children having nightmares after we got them back from Stenmun and Blayce. Why think it isn’t true for you?”

            “I’m not a child any more, it lasted for a few minutes, not days on end, and I was three-quarters unconscious before it even started. There’s no-one I want to talk to about it. Certainly not Peliwin, who wants only to forget her ordeal, and especially not any gods, who doubtless all saw it anyway. I’m sorry, Neal, but like Peachblossom I’m as healed as I’m ever likely to be.” Pain rolled within her. “I’m sorry it makes my temper uncertain. I’m trying to learn to live with the memories, but it’ll take me a while.”

            Neal looked entirely miserable but something flared in his eyes. “Kel, you don’t lose your temper at all. I’d welcome it if you did. So would almost everyone, I think—it’d be a sign you were feeling something. You say you’re sorry, Mithros knows what for, but you don’t sound sorry or angry or anything, just a long way away.”

            “A lot of me is, Neal. I think some of me didn’t make it back from the Peaceful Realms or wherever that greyness was. Or maybe it’s like the pain old soldiers say they feel in limbs they’ve lost, except what I’m missing is in my mind.” And inside my body. “Please, just leave it. There’s nothing you or anyone can do or say that’ll change anything.”

            She walked away and he subsequently obeyed her, though misery never left his eyes and the darkening of his joy with Yuki tore at her heart behind its glass. Prompted or on her own account, Yuki tried to get her to talk, but though Kel was gentler than with Neal she was equally adamant. Whatever the loving sex of a married couple might be it wasn’t related to what she’d experienced any more than Vinson’s lecherous brutality, and knowing Yuki desired to be with child Kel wouldn’t have spoken of such a topic to her even if she’d had anything to say. Fanche she also rebuffed, as politely as she could, turning the conversation instead to Jarna, who had at last had some account of what she’d seen coaxed from her by Fanche and Saefas.

            As Kel had suspected, the attack had come out of the blue—or mud-brown—with no-one aware enemies were near until the farmer closest to the woodeaves had been gored. Another tauros must have already been close to Wallan and gored him as he blew the horn, hurling him down the hill to land where Kel had seen him. How Jarna had survived she didn’t know, but she’d frozen in shock under her husband’s gutted corpse, drenched in his blood; Kel could only assume the tauros that killed him had been the one taken down by Pevis’s spear, and that she with poor Crener and Varlan had then been distraction enough. Grimly, she revised her standing orders with Brodhelm, Merric, and Uinse: parties working near woodeaves or dead ground would have spearmen looking outwards under griffin-bands, and there’d be more regular training in spearwork, sweeping with the leaf-blades as if they were glaives, not just stabbing and risking getting the point caught, as Pevis had. She made a note to get more glaives, which women among work parties could use more effectively, but that would take time.

            “Slings!” Merric sat up sharply. “Like goatherds use. There’s stones enough for everyone to have a few in their pockets, and a sling folds up small. Easy to make, too. But if you can stop a bear with a good slingshot, it ought to give even a tauros a headache if you hit it between the eyes.”

            “Are they that good?” Seaver was doubtful. “I’ve seen lads drive off a fox, but never a bear, and it ran from fright when they missed it.”

            “They can be, Seaver. There’s a boy at Hollyrose who can hit a mark every time at fifty yards, hard enough to gouge a treetrunk, and he doesn’t do badly at greater distances. He can hit the pond from a thousand feet, most times, when he really winds up. It’s about fifty foot across. I know that’s no use against a tauros—but a dozen stones dropping at five or eight hundred feet might do damage to a charging group, and at closer ranges it’s got to be better than nothing. At least it could buy time for people to run and reinforcements to come.”

            Kel felt some enthusiasm. “Good thinking. We’ll have sling classes.”

            The experiment during the next evening’s regular practice session, with a trio of goatherding lads among the refugees who claimed ability, attracted much attention and the speed at which stones flew, with fair accuracy over shorter ranges, was impressive enough to ensure plenty of volunteers to learn. Kel soon came to enjoy slingwork, liking the way you had to cock your wrist and when you got it right the sharp increase in accuracy that was possible as well as the odd purity of the notes amid the whirring noise before you released. When the best among them found themselves issued with spidren-web slings made by Quenuresh during her next visit, and discovered the elasticity of the webbing increased speed and power, competition to improve redoubled.

            It was a hazardous business and there were accidents—nasty gashes and bruises, a broken nose and cheekbone as well as some permanently dislodged teeth. Neal and Morri complained about needless traffic to the infirmary, and Kel put Connac in charge of training-ground discipline with dire threats of feeding to the pigs anyone who disagreed. One sow was sporting a bruised flank from the previous evening and her well-timed squeal of agreement brought general laughter that Kel joined in her own surprise. It was the first emotion she’d shared since the attack, and people noticed, offering smiles as they got back to whirling and shooting more carefully.

            That night Kel found herself woken by Tobe’s frantic shaking from a nightmare of memory, in which she wasn’t remotely unconscious and everything happened again, slowly and unstoppably. Her scream had brought him running to find her rigid in her bed, face transfigured with pain and bathed in sweat; her nightshirt was drenched. Stumbling to her privy she was vilely sick, and after she’d wiped herself down and donned a clean nightshirt with leggings for warmth it took her a long time to calm Tobe, trying to reassure him nightmares faded. She knew they weren’t Lord Gainel’s doing—the experiences needed no sending—but certainties crumbled when Tobe asked in a small voice if the Hag was like the Nothing Man, and at her shocked denial told her she’d been cursing the god’s daughter when he’d found her. After finally getting him to bed with hot milk and an equally disturbed Jump for company, she lit a fire and sat for a long time staring into the flames. Next day she went to see Neal, shutting the door to his office behind her and asking him to seal the room magically. When he had she sat and met his gaze.

            “You were right. I’m sorry. I’m having nightmares I can’t deal with, and it has to stop, for Tobe’s sake. I can’t talk to anyone here, Neal. I’m sorry. But I’ve thought of someone I could talk to, a woman who knows about gods and violence both, and me. Will you ask Lady Alanna if she can come? Or I’ll go to her at Frasrlund.”

            Neal smacked his head. “I’m an idiot, Kel. I should have thought of her.” He thought a moment. “I’m pretty sure she’s heading to Corus for Midwinter, so she’ll be leaving by full moon after Samhain, or before if snow starts. That’s five weeks. And we have to head south not much later, so I’ll ask her to ride south with us.”

            “That makes sense. I can hold on that long.”

            “Do you want something to make you sleep?”

            “No. They aren’t dreams, Neal—they’re memories. Waking up is my only refuge—they’re still in my head but awake I can push them away. To be held in sleep …” She shivered.

            “Alright. I didn’t think you’d accept. But something to hope for should help a bit.”

            It did, but not much. More useful was a visit to Lord Gainel’s shrine in the deepening cold of a night watch, after she’d struggled awake from under the tauros yet again. Over a cone of incense she whispered prayer that the Dream King let her wake as soon as memory began to claim her from sleep. There was no answer but as she crouched, letting her mind drift with swirls of breath, she felt comforted and thereafter did seem to wake more swiftly from her recurrent helplessness on the afternoon hillside. Broken sleep left her increasingly tired and having to watch the temper Neal said she never lost, but she got an astonishing amount of work done, and for the first time since coming north caught up with reading and letters owed her family.

            They were determinedly busy with minutiae of life at New Hope and the royal and divine visits. She did mention that they’d taken casualties from a Scanran raid in September, but said nothing of her own losses. She didn’t think her mother would be fooled by such evasion but at least she’d managed something normal, and her feelings for the fort—little town, really—she found herself running were genuine, however all emotions remained muted. When she managed a fairly cheerful letter to her always disapproving Seabeth-and-Seajen grandmother, about the dedication ceremonies and the pickling skills Yuki was teaching the cooks, and fell dreamlessly asleep at her desk for several hours one rainy evening over an absurd Gallan romance she’d borrowed from Neal, waking with a stiff neck and numb arm, she thought she’d started on a slow road back.

 

* * * * *

 

The ides of October were enlivened by three unexpected visits. The first, unwelcome one, the day before full moon, began when Kel was called from lunch by Sergeant Ersen, on gatehouse duty, because a small group of riders had paused on the stone bridge over the Greenwoods, pointing and gesticulating, before approaching the moatbridge. Standing under the lintel Kel focused her spyglass and Ersen saw her lips whiten.

            “You know them, Lady Kel?”

            “It’s Tirrsmont and his son.” Ersen hissed as Kel snapped the spyglass shut. “I don’t know what they want but unless they’ve orders from Lord Wyldon or General Vanget they’re not coming in. Send for Brodhelm and Uinse, please, and Fanche and Saefas.”

            “At once, my Lady.”

            They were assembled behind her outside the gate by the time the horsemen approached. A thin-faced man in a dirty chainmail byrnie with a Tirrsmont captain’s badge and leather leggings rode in front of his Lord, overweight as ever and wrapped in heavy furs; Sir Voelden, also bulging in armour, flanked his father, while a dozen men-at-arms rode behind them, haubergeons as ill-kept as their captain’s byrnie. Negotiating the sharp turn the captain looked up.

            “Make way for his Lordship, you fools. Clear the road now.”

            Kel didn’t budge and felt Brodhelm tense. “Not until I know his business, captain. And I suggest you learn manners fast.”

            His eyes bulged and she saw his legs tense to spur his horse forward but Tirrsmont barked and he awkwardly backed, seething resentment but letting the noble forward. The lord’s beaky nose didn’t match his bulging cheeks and chins, and he looked at her coldly over it.

            “You are the so-called Lady Knight Cavall was stupid enough to put in charge here?”

            Kel neither nodded nor bowed. “Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, Commander. And you are?”

            His cheeks bulged. “Don’t be impertinent, girl. You know who I am.”

            “We have never met.”

            Sir Voelden brought his stallion up beside his father’s, sneering. “You know me well enough, wench. Stop this idiot charade and let us in. We’ve business to deal with.”

            Kel looked at him, Yamani mask tightly in place, and kept her voice level. “I know you, Voelden of Tirrsmont, for a man who fouled the field of honour with attempted murder.”

            He flushed. “It was an accident.”

            “Really? Swear that by gods’ oath and I’ll believe you.” His eyes dropped: it had been no accident and whoever swore a false gods’ oath, or broke one truly made, would find blood boiling in their veins. She felt like spitting but that was Quinden’s style. “This is your father?”

            “Of course it is.” Voelden’s voice was truculent.

            “So.” She looked at the older man. “What business do you claim here, Tirrsmont?”

            His face darkened at her lack of deference, but however his ancestors might be in the Book of Silver and hers only recently in the Book of Copper she was noble, and more importantly a knight commander to whom he’d shown no respect at all.

            “This is my land, Mindelan, and you and these shirkers you coddle are here on my sufferance. I’ll ha—”

            That was a claim she could not let stand for a moment. “By what right do you claim this land? Your boundary is the first ridge west of your castle.”

            “This valley has always been mine. I had men surveying here before the war started, and—”

            “It is not yours. This is an army fort under military jurisdiction, so I ask again, what is your business here?”

            He glared furiously, his voice tight. “It will be mine soon. You have men from Tirrsmont here. Miners. I require their labour. Order them to assemble. Their chits and brats can stay.”

            So that was it—his coffers must be feeling the drain of unmined silver as well as lost tithes from people he hadn’t bothered to defend and refused to succour. And knowing well what all the surviving Tirrsmonters in her care had to say about their former lord, she also knew what custom, law, and army regulations each said.

            “You are mistaken. All civilians here have been driven from their homes by the enemy and denied succour by their former lords. Liege-oaths, if ever sworn, are void.” Not that he’d have bothered with such formalities for commoners. “You have no claim on them, nor on this land. And if you desire army work parties to assist you elsewhere you must apply to my Lord of Cavall at Mastiff.”

            Tirrsmont had refused to take more refugees from his own or anyone’s lands. In any case the silver mines were closed with reason.

            “I’ve no time for that nonsense, Mindelan. They’re needed and they’re mine!” His voice rose. “I know what you’re about, you harlot, setting yourself up on my lands to whore with Cavall for a fief of your own. Well, you’ll not have what’s mine.”

            Kel’s head was spinning with his words. She could hear Brodhelm’s sharply drawn breath beside her and distant exclamations of anger, but her own voice stayed even though her gaze was hard.

            “Think what you like about me, Tirrsmont, though I’d be careful what you say of my Lord of Cavall. His lance is heavier than mine, and he does not suffer calumny idly. Nothing here is yours, neither land nor people, and you have no claim on any of it. Nor are you welcome here, prating of rights over people you abandoned.” His face was purple and Voelden’s the same, but Kel had had more than enough of parasitic lords. “Your request for labour is denied with cause. Your silver mines were closed last year because you would not protect them, by order of my Lord of Goldenlake, confirmed by General Vanget, and you have no authority to reopen them or detail miners. Seek it at Northwatch, if you will, but you’ll get short shrift.”

            While they’d been speaking Brodhelm’s and Uinse’s soldiers had filled the gate behind her; others reinforced alures and gatehouse roof, staring with hostile eyes. Opening his mouth to retort Tirrsmont became aware of them, eyes sweeping around and face tightening with rage. He stared at her for a long moment.

            “You will regret this, Mindelan. Your whoring is common knowledge and it is long past time you were put in your place.”

            “Your son said much the same before I knocked him off his horse and rested my blade on his nose. Now get you gone before I knock you from yours and do the same.”

            It wasn’t pretty or quiet but they did go, father and son jostling their men dangerously and clattering down the roadway as the slovenly troops recovered themselves and turned to follow. The captain shot Kel a furious look as derisory insults came from the alures, and Kel shouted for silence, voice cracking.

            “They’re not worth your thought, people, and time’s wasting. Back to work, now. The show’s over.”

            Turning, she saw worry in Fanche’s and Saefas’s eyes, and the sturdy woman she’d come to rely on put a hand anxiously on her arm.

            “Can he claim overlordship here, my Lady?”

            Kel shook her head. “Not unless his fief-grant is formally extended, and I don’t think that’ll be happening. Lord Wyldon and General Vanget would certainly oppose him while the war continues.”

            “And after?” Saefas’s mouth turned down.

            She shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t think any request of his would be looked on very kindly, though. The King’s no happier than Lord Wyldon with the way he’s behaved.”

            She left them muttering and went to her office to think. She hadn’t allowed sexual insults to bother her since her first page-year, before she’d even known what it was to think of a man with desire, and to her surprise discovered experience of rape hadn’t changed that. The irony of insistent accusations that she’d slept her way to knighthood and command when she’d finally lost her virginity only to fatal immortal force was bleak, and part of her hoped the Hag was entertained, but words Tirrsmont clearly thought deadly truths were just sour wind. But the accusation that she was acting to build a fief to claim for herself shook her badly. If she thought about it coldly New Hope was already the match of many fiefs, with more than seven hundred souls—though Brodhelm’s men belonged elsewhere—and a fortified position few even of the oldest and wealthiest could match. But to her it was a safehold for refugees, who planted and sweated to feed themselves not to tithe of their labour to anyone, let alone a man who’d abandoned them. When she spoke by spellmirror to Wyldon that evening, apologetically explaining what had happened, his expression became thunderous.

            “He said that I … that you … Gods, I’ll have his head if he says that to my face.” Abruptly he flushed as red as she’d ever seen him and wouldn’t look at her. “Keladry, I’m so sorry he should speak to you in such a manner after …”

            His voice trailed away and she contemplated him gravely, suddenly wondering how he was coping with his unshared knowledge of what had happened to her, and a determination rose in her that neither gods nor tauroses would take this friendship from her with everything else.

            “After I was raped by a beast? Wyldon, look at me.” Face still flushed he jerked up his head. “It’s of no account, truly.” And in itself it wasn’t, she realised, nightmares notwithstanding; what she grieved wasn’t involuntary chastity but wholeness, the woman who’d been able to think of dedicating herself to the goddess with a salt of self-mockery. “Would you hesitate to mention combat to a veteran who’d once been wounded? This is no different. Please don’t make it so.”

            He drew a breath, eyes gleaming as they came back to her. “As you wish, Keladry. You are worth a thousand of him.”

            “That’s not hard.” Her voice sounded normal but she could feel the flush his compliments always provoked. “In any case, I didn’t interrupt you because he was insulting. It’s what he said about New Hope as a fief, and the claims he tried to make. I checked the maps afterwards but I was right—his boundary’s two ridges east of here. What’s going on?”

            Wyldon sighed. “There’s been a lot of talk about New Hope. Inevitably. It’s an astonishing place, and you’ve done wonders with it, literally. The fact that it’s now the strongest fortification between Northwatch and Frasrlund is enough to have all sorts casting envious eyes, and the Crown Prince’s report on that dedication has put your name on everyone’s lips. Again. Sir Myles warned me last week that a number of younger sons have begun to agitate for it to be formally chartered and granted. I was going to tell you when you next reported, not that it’s an army matter. But I hadn’t anticipated Tirrsmont making a claim. I should have—he’s always been as greedy as he is uncaring of liegers.”

            Kel found herself furious. “How do I stop him? And these pewling sons, whoever they are? No-one’s just walking in and claiming my people.”

            His eyebrows rose at her tone but his voice was suddenly bland. “The easiest way by far, Keladry, would be to claim it yourself.” She felt blood drain from her face but he went on remorselessly. “You call them your people, as any commander might, and they are—all of them, not just the convict soldiers and Brodhelm’s men, but what, four hundred and odd souls. And ogres and basilisks. If you petition the Council, with their support as well as Vanget’s and mine, Goldenlake’s, the Lioness’s …”

            She stared. “I can’t do that!”

            “Why not? A year ago the Greenwoods valley was wilderness. Now it has a superb citadel and a thriving population, as well as the goodwill of eight gods. There is a case that it become a fief—keeping it a ‘refugee fort’ is absurd—and only one person who clearly deserves to be its overlord. Overlady, rather.”

            Mithros knew what colour her cheeks were by now. “But I wasn’t—”

            “Of course you weren’t. You’ve never sought any reward for yourself beyond the right to try for knighthood. But gods know you’ve succeeded magnificently in all you’ve attempted. This is a logical step, entirely traditional.” A smile ghosted onto his face. “It’s deeply appropriate, actually, and if the King didn’t leap at it I’d be very surprised. And the Council. The absence of any proper reward for you has been arousing comment, and those civilian purses the Prince gave out fuelled rather than dampened speculation.”

            “Wyldon, I cannot do such a thing. We’re in the middle of a war! Maybe New Hope should become a fief but this is no time to be playing for rank or money.”

            “Isn’t it? History disagrees, I think. But if that’s truly how you feel, ask the Council to put the question out of bounds until Maggur’s dead or vanquished and we have a proper treaty. It wouldn’t be as popular but I doubt they’d refuse your request.”

            Her mind whirled. “That I could do. I just don’t want Tirrsmont or anyone else bullying in here and sending people he’s abandoned once into further hazard so he can get fatter yet.”

            “Quite right.” His smile broadened. “Did you really tell him to get himself gone before you unhorsed him?”

            Her flush was back but she didn’t drop her eyes. “I’m afraid I did. It was Voelden sitting there—”

            “Oh I’m not objecting. He’d earned a mortal challenge, never mind a controlled retort. And I’ve told you before not to doubt your authority so much—even if he’d been courteous he’s so far outside his rights he hasn’t a leg to stand on.”

            “Thank you.” She swallowed. “Can you advise me about petitioning the Council?”

            “Of course.” He thought, rubbing his forehead. “Send His Grace of Naxen notice of intent at once, copying Vanget and me. And get depositions from your people—civilians—about how they came to be there, and whose lordship they would welcome.” He held up a hand as her mouth opened. “Yes, they’ll name you, but you needn’t say that, just enter the whole lot into evidence to show none will welcome anyone else. Get immortals’ testimonies too, if they’re willing—remind everyone that taking on New Hope means taking on Quenuresh under solemn treaty already honoured in blood. And let your parents know. They have wide connections these days. I’ll talk to Vanget, and Goldenlake.” He looked a query. “I gather the Lioness is coming to you before heading south?”

            “Yes. Neal arranged it. He … I need to talk to her, about … something the Black God said to me. Something personal.”

            “Of course.” He didn’t indulge his obvious curiosity at her mention of the god and she was unspeakably grateful for his courtesy. “I imagine there’s much you might wish to talk to her about, and Mithros knows she’s been wanting to see you since the summer. Frasrlund’s been quiet so she’ll be on her way soon, I’d think.”

            They parted with easier talk of what was happening along the front, minor skirmishes with small war parties and one more serious incursion to the east that Vanget’s companies had repelled. Kel went to bed with more on her mind than memories and for once slept well, waking early but refreshed. An hour of pattern dances left her feeling restored, and a cautious meeting with Fanche after breakfast set collection of testimonies rolling. The immortals she talked to herself, needing her Yamani mask when all said flatly they’d accept no-one else’s authority, Quenuresh adding that her treaty with the King specified residence in the Greenwoods valley under Kel’s command at New Hope.

            The second, equally unwelcome mid-month visitors were a Scanran raiding group, who started a fearful scramble for safety by a large firewood party, taking advantage of a sunny day to comb the increasingly bare woods of the southern end of the valley; but the raiders took so many casualties from the slings and arrows of the woodgatherers and their guards that they started retreating even before reinforcements arrived. Five Scanrans died, at least two from slingshots that unhorsed them as they charged, in return for one guard from Olleric’s squad—leaving everyone grimly pleased. That evening Kel gave generous praise all round and there was a better atmosphere than there’d been since before the tauros attack.

            The third visit, altogether more entertaining if equally alarming, began when a small body of armed riders clattered over the bridges and up the roadway at a canter. Kel was waiting, duty squad behind her and men thickening on the alures, but with surprised pleasure recognised Keiichi noh Daiomoru with another blade-faced Yamani she didn’t know and a squad of the Own as escort. Sending a soldier at the run for Yuki and Neal she welcomed them in proper Yamani mode, bowing with hands on thighs and leading them personally through the gatehouse where both spoke their names and declared goodwill; the blade-faced man called himself Takemahou and the name tugged at Kel’s memory. By the time their horses had been led to the stables and the Ownsmen consigned to Brodhelm’s care, Yuki was jogging up from the main level in one of the Tortallan dresses she wore in the kitchens, Neal behind her. Her eyes were bright as she saw her brother but when they took in the other Yamani they widened and she slowed; her bow was much deeper than Kel’s had been, in the mode to a great lord. Eyeing him warily Kel waited for Keiichi formally to introduce his companion.

            “Lady Knight Commander, Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Shinkokami told you, I believe, that my Imperial Master has expressed His interest in the manner of living with spidrens you are pioneering, and requests you permit an observer of your experiment?”

            “She did, Keiichi-sama, and it will be my honour to welcome any servant of His Imperial Majesty’s to New Hope.”

            “Allow me then to present to you Takemahou-sensei, who comes as I do on our Imperial Master’s command.”

            Sensei—the name clicked. Kel bowed again, matching Yuki. She had heard of this man: his magename meant ‘mountain magic’ and he had once—it was fervently told—persuaded a lavaflow to detour round a town. Numair said it must have been a very small lavaflow, but still. More to the point, he stood very high among Yamani mages and served the Emperor alone. Kel switched to Yamani in what she devoutly hoped was the right mode.

            “Takemahou-sensei, it is our honour that you visit us.”

            “On the contrary, Lady Knight, the honour is mine to come where Lord Sakuyo laughed. I have heard most remarkable tales of you and of New Hope from Keiichi-san and Her Royal Highness, and already I can see they were but shadows of the truth.”

            The excruciatingly polite ritual proceeded. Yuki was plainly embarrassed by her Tortallan dress and lacked a fan to hide her face but Kel introduced her ruthlessly with an equally flustered Neal, to Keiichi’s well-concealed amusement, and got the unexpected visitors first to guestrooms and then to lunch. The still glowing pillars and savour of the food provoked a spate of questions about divine blessings, with the whole business of the dedications. The mage was unfailingly polite, in Yamani and accented Tortallan, but like Numair wanted the oddest details. When he broached the topic of Lord Sakuyo’s laugh Kel had Neal and Yuki add their accounts, collared Seaver for his, and eventually, in desperation, hauled Takemahou off to see the shrines himself.

            After peering at each statue, lingering on Lord Sakuyo, the mage touched his fingers to his eyes, muttering. His yelp took everyone by surprise but Kel managed to catch him as he stumbled backwards, eyes watering before he could gasp cancellation of whatever he’d done to enhance his vision. She saw Neal and Seaver suppress laughs while Keiichi’s eyes brightened, but kept amusement out of her voice as she set him upright, enquiring blandly if something disturbed him.

            Eyes still streaming he drew himself up. “Blessed Keladry-sama, on the second plane these shrines blaze godlight, Lord Sakuyo’s most of all. I am honoured by his laugh, I think.” He murmured again, touching his eyes quickly and snapping them shut before opening them again and giving her a much deeper bow than at the gatehouse. “You too are awash with godlight, my Lady, as no mortal I have ever seen.”

            Given the state of her flesh Kel wasn’t surprised, though the high Yamani honorific had been unexpected, and she found herself liking the man—he might be mage-prickly and demanding but he learned fast and could laugh at himself. Inspired, she laid a hand gently on his arm and quoted one of Kumo’s verses spoken at Sakuyo’s great April festival.

            “Even thunder stills / to hear Him ease His lungs.” She stayed in Yamani, dropping into the mode of instruction. “Takemahou-sensei, we are all supplicants, commanding none but ourselves. That the gods’ purposes are greater than any understand is plain, and they attend us for their own reasons. But in so far as we are favoured it is in our desperation and need, not any imagined greatness. Please, walk freely among us today and ask as you will of what happened here. Tomorrow I will take you to meet Quenuresh.”

            Eyes glittering appreciation, as were Yuki’s and Keiichi’s, he bowed again and let her get back to her work, Neal and Yuki accompanying her and Keiichi catching them up on the green to clap her resoundingly on the shoulder.

            “Keladry-sensei, that was entirely splendid.”

            “I’m no sensei, Keiichi-sama.”

            “Oh but you are. Forgive contradiction, but besides becoming one of Sakuyo’s Blessed you have just dealt with a difficult man better than anyone I’ve ever seen save His Majesty. If that is not mastery, what is?”

            Kel gave him a straight look. “Lord Sakuyo’s favour, merely.”

            “No merely about it.”

            She’d never yet won an argument with Keiichi that she could remember, so after a brief discussion about the tokens of Blessedness he assured her would be sent as soon as may be, the sudden demand for so many having taken even His Imperial Majesty by surprise, she left him to his reunion with Yuki. The refugees to whom Master Takemahou (as he introduced himself in Tortallan) spoke during the afternoon seemed flattered that someone should come from Yaman to learn how they were doing something, and when Kel wore her kimonos that evening—in his honour and to make amends to Yuki for having presented her in a working dress—there was good cheer. It was the first finery Kel had worn since the attack, and though pulling on the undershift she’d looked sadly at her unfeeling breast it was a pleasure in a remote way to feel skirts swish, and know she looked as well as she ever did.

            The trip to see Quenuresh was interesting but not altogether hopeful. Takemahou, filmed in sweat, was extremely polite to the immortal, who listened carefully to his description of the problems on Wangetsushima and shook her head.

            “From what you say very young spidrens plague you, unlikely to listen to proposals of peace or be able to act on them. I am old among my kind, counting life in centuries, and long past the urgencies of first mating. Yet if there is an elder among them something might be done.” She suggested ways in which contact might be attempted, and taught him a spell to set on a message that should attract any spidren. “Use Old Thak for the messages—all of any maturity know it—and set one of these with them.” Extruding a dozen short lengths of web she touched them with forelegs, murmuring, and gave them to him. “If they have a mage of any degree it will be able to contact me—and should any do so, I will tell them how I have fared in Tortall. But—I intend no disrespect—I cannot assure them of your emperor’s good faith, for I have no experience of it. You will need to find a Protector of your own, and I doubt there can be two such mortals at one time.”

            Kel gave the spidren a glare that made her smile but Master Takemahou nodded gravely and assured Quenuresh the need for mutual good faith was understood.

            “We desire true peace, not a false lull. The Scanran raids on Wangetsushima have been bad in recent years also, and all there would welcome a lessened threat from the interior. Only”—he seemed hesitant —“may I ask, Quenuresh-sensei, what we might offer in trade? This cheese is no part of our diet in the Islands, and to many unclean.”

            Kel almost clapped a hand to her mouth. It was true that many Yamanis felt about cheese and all curdled milk much as most Tortallans felt about slivers of raw fish and strong sake pickles, but the problem that now presented hadn’t occurred to her. Quenuresh merely nodded.

            “Cheese is a luxury, not a necessity. Meat and milk should be enough, or land to hunt undisturbed. It is competition for mating rights and the need to feed large broods that drives our aggression towards mortals in this realm, and towards one another in the Divine Realms. If that is addressed, it should suffice.”

            “Will not increase in their numbers then create the same problem again? The islanders’ resources are not infinite.”

            “They may. But if peace can once be achieved, the older spidrens will control their own and allow the population to grow only slowly.”

            Riding back to New Hope Takemahou was effusive in his thanks and praise, and asked Kel if there were anything he could do for New Hope.

            “My Imperial Master would wish it, and I will be happy to do all I may.” His voice dropped. “Speaking as a mage, I count myself in your debt for killing Blayce. Necromancy is the vilest magical art.”

            Kel wondered how long she’d continue to be surprised by the repercussions of her Scanran adventure. “Thank you. Forgive ignorance, Takemahou-sensei, but while I know of course of your great feat with the lavaflow, I do not know what here might best suit your skills.”

            “I am a warmage—not in your Master Numair’s class, but not so far off. I diverted that lavaflow by blasting an overhang on the cliff above into its path, so it ran downhill another way.” He gave her what might have been a grin, but in his sharp face was more threat than relaxation. “One does not persuade a lavaflow to do anything politely, however the chroniclers may report it.”

            Pleased by his saturnine honesty and feeling ideas stir, she risked a return grin though her face was becoming unused to smiling. “I imagine not. But as a warmage far stronger than those here, there is something about which you might advise me.”

            Her plan for rockfalls above the trail had been defeated by practicality. If the piled rock were sufficient to inflict damage, and its support only a wooden cradle, timberwork had to be so massive neither Forist nor Anner were confident it could be blown with the mageblasts they could make. The basilisks could petrify a slighter construction to give it the necessary strength, but mageblasts then had almost no effect at all. Takemahou, though, saw no problem.

            “Certainly, Keladry-sama. I can make mageblasts far more powerful and augment them with a spell to direct force against a specific section of the cradles. Where did you have in mind to set these rockfalls?”

            Pulling up she pointed back along the trail, indicating several places, then across the valley to the end of the limestone cliffs, where broken crags ended close to flatland. It wouldn’t be as useful as ones above the trail, but if she ever faced a real siege part of the enemy’s encampment might be in its path.

            Takemahou nodded. “Good choices. And while your admirable moat means you would not desire any rockfall from the glacis, there is an overhang on the fin—there, do you see?—that might be mined to make it fall at command. It is well away from your walls but will offer shelter if the wind is south or west—the kind an enemy might take advantage of.”

            Kel’s grin was more genuine and the next days saw demonstration of a mageblast whose violent crack shattered a heavy spar, building and emplacement of cradles, and the astonishing sight of Master Takemahou climbing three hundred feet up the fin on spidren-web ropes to clamber about the overhang, planting a score of mageblasts in cracks and hollows along its sides and upper edge. He also helped with brute lifting power to put the first, large rocks in each cradle, and Kel was content: each rockfall could be built up over time, and she instituted a standing order that those going in their direction should take a sack of fist-sized stones from the spoil of the steadily lengthening tunnel to the lookout post, set ready in a pile at the side of the gatehouse. A trip on foot with a heavier sack became an excellent threatened punishment as well, supplementing latrine duty and armour scouring, though the children, eyeing her warily when she first made it, soon worked out that as extra guards would be needed if they were sent they were safe enough. In any case there was no difficulty seeing her order obeyed, and day by day she had the satisfaction of seeing another defence that did not rely on trained warriors or sheer numbers take menacing shape.

            Master Takemahou also proved himself when a cradle-building party was attacked by a small band of Scanrans, whirling from his work to rip a line of earth up into the faces of the riders, and following with a ball of yellow fire that burned two dismounted men out of existence. She had been standing watch herself, armed with godbow as well as sword and glaive, and another two Scanrans fell to her needlepoints, shots that elicited startled admiration. A fifth died from a slingshot that caught him square in the face, plucking him cleanly off his pony, and the rest retreated at speed back to the woods from which they’d emerged. In the excited cheer following sharp and successful action Kel saw the Yamani thanked and clapped on the back, and liked him all the more for the speed with which shock at such impropriety was hidden by a smile.

            He and Keiichi stayed a week, the last two days an indulgence of Yuki more than anything though the effects of the Green Lady’s blessing on Yamani dishes had something to do with it. But the Emperor was waiting, so despite driving rain she, Neal, and Yuki found themselves waving fond farewell one dawn. Keiichi had promised to investigate the possibility of shipping glaives from the Imperial Armoury, adding when Kel demurred at the cost that he thought the Emperor would be happy to make an outright gift to the citadel of Sakuyo’s Blessed. Alarmed at such threatened generosity Kel had written a long letter Keiichi was carrying to her parents, and as the Ownsmen were lost to sight in the rain she dragged Yuki off for glaive practice in an unused barracks she’d had cleared as a practice court. For an hour they did pattern dances, recalling with rueful humour routines old Naruko had taught them, but Yuki declined to spar and blushed when Kel raised an eyebrow.

            “I know I need the practice, Kel, but it has to wait. Until summer in fact.” She looked down, then added in a rush, “I’ve missed my courses. It’s a week now, and I’m usually so regular.”

            It took Kel a second to process before her heart soared. “You’re pregnant? Yuki, that’s wonderful.” She grasped her friend’s shoulders and hugged her. “I’m so happy for you. Neal must be over the moon. I can’t believe he’s kept it quiet.”

            “He doesn’t know yet.”

            “Why ever not?” Yuki looked down, something Kel couldn’t identify in her eyes. “Yuki, what is it?”

            “You’re not upset, Kel?”

            “Of course not. Why should I …” Her voice trailed away as she realised why Yuki might think she would be. She hadn’t realised her friend was late, although their cycles were similar and they recognised one another’s bad days, partly because she’d been so distant, but also because she’d had no courses since the attack, though not, she knew bitterly, for the same reason. A little calculation told her the child had been conceived close to the time she’d been attacked but she couldn’t not be glad for her friends, and if they’d celebrated their wholeness in that way it was no-one’s business but their own. “No, Yuki, not in the least. I’m delighted for you both.”

            Her friend looked miserable and anxious, tears filling her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Kel. I feel terrible. We had that conversation about Irnai and having children, and I just waved you goodbye … and when you came back you looked so awful and Neal was so upset and we … I didn’t have my charm on and we’d been going to wait for children until after the war …”

            “Hush, Yuki. It’s alright.” Kel folded her friend in another hug, cursing her woundedness for becoming such a burden on another. She might remain ignorant herself but she’d spent enough time with the Own to know men didn’t seek female company after surviving combat merely as a pleasure, and Neal had had to deal with a lot while she had sat absorbed in Peachblossom’s injury.

            “How can you not mind, Kel? It’s so unfair, and we … we …”

            “Hush, now.” Kel held Yuki while she cried but her own eyes were dry, her feelings more a growing anger without focus than sorrow. “I mind what happened to me, Yuki, but how can I mind the joy of my best and oldest friends? It’d be fair foolish, as Daine would say, eh? Here, dry those tears—you’re getting all blotchy.”

            She produced a spare handkerchief, thinking of the way Owen and the men of Dom’s squad had taken to calling her ‘Mother’; the irony wasn’t lost on her but getting Yuki presentable again and back to Neal was more important. She left them with Neal unsure if he wanted to hug Yuki three more times or just dance around, and already jabbering about many beneficial varieties of tea he would begin to brew at once. Shuddering, not altogether in mockery, Kel left them to their joy with a heart lighter for it but that night her sleep returned her once again to the hillside and Gainel—or her own searing fright and rage—did not wake her until the tauros’s flat teeth were closing on her breast. Jerking upright as its bull features dissolved into the darkness of her room she found her hand clamped on the blunt grey dome through her soaking nightshirt. At least godflesh or whatever it was didn’t bruise. The thought was black, and if the half-humour of it was oddly comforting it was a long, cold hour before she slept again.

 

* * * * *

 

There was still no sign of snow but a gale and a succession of blustery days driving drenching squalls accompanied sharp frosts. The last leaves fell from oaks and alders, and evergreens that thickened in the northern valley stood out, welcome patches of colour among bare wet branches. When the wind did drop at night fog pooled on the valley bottom, and Kel brought a reluctant Peachblossom back to the main stables.

            The prevailing winds in the valley, as across northern Tortall, were from west and north, and while the latter could blow wickedly up valley Kel had thought the fin would provide shelter from westerlies. It did cast a substantial rain-shadow but when the winds picked up strong eddies could whip across the green in any direction, dumping sodden leaves or clearing them. Lying awake during the gale, her shutters rattling, Kel could hear a threnody of thuttering moans and shriller notes as the wind explored stonework and gaps between buildings.

            With the break in the weather routine shifted. Fieldwork was reduced to bare maintenance, clearing windblown trash from winter crops and deepening the sough from the moat to the Greenwoods to prevent flooding as flow from the spring rose. Instead people set to work on giving more buildings piped water and remedying deficiencies driving rain exposed—adjusting gutters, improving drainage of kitchen garden and treeplots, and installing extra bolts to still rattling shutters. One window in the barracks Fanche slept in proved a magnet for drafts even heavy sacking could not deter, and in an inspired moment of rage one night she seized a length of old spidren webbing children had been using as a jump-rope and packed it into the most troublesome gap. It was still there in the morning and Fanche quietly found other pieces to pack all four sides of the window as well as the seam of the shutters—and thereafter wind stayed out. Available webbing was soon exhausted but Quenuresh, no more concerned with old webbing than griffins with moulted feathers, was happy to exchange large bundles for an additional round of cheese and the whole of New Hope was shortly much snugger. Brodhelm and one or two sergeants did shake heads at the peculiar appearance it gave barracks and headquarters, but weren’t about to refuse such an unexpected boon.

            Daily life on the main level became busier, many refugees working in barracks to make and mend, and when some stray bales of spun thread turned up with a convoy of supply wagons two looms were set up. Kel thought hard about a request to use the as yet unfilled barracks, but she’d reminded Vanget in her last report of his promise about a second regular company, and though he’d grumbled they’d soon be on their way. Instead she made a decision she’d been pondering and had the looms put in the cave system, directing everyone’s attention to the sheltered spaces that as yet only miners and children used regularly.

            The first major chamber had proven too damp for food storage, now organised in offshoot chambers and passages, but one of the larger volumes on the way from that chamber to the high-ceilinged one where basilisks, ogres, and miners continued to extend the spiral passageway proved ideal—level, dry, large enough to work in with ease and for people to gather but not so large basilisk-heated blocks didn’t warm it to snugness. Sacking curtains, whitewash on walls and floor, and some benches and chairs soon made it a place people sought out, and the axis of life shifted towards the interior spaces. The first chamber became a place to strip off wet or bulky outer clothing, its level side away from the pool a place for children to run and play when rain and cold made the green a misery. Kel had a chest-high fence built around the pool to prevent accidents, and one of the Hannaford stonemasons began carving the stalagmites into latticed lampholders. The slowly expanding line of lights warned of the pool and were reflected in its surface, while the delicacy of the work, admired by all, exerted a subtle pressure to keep children away when they were rushing about the drier side of the cave.

            The resident immortals were also pleased. They had long since made themselves living spaces in corners and adapted small offshoot caves to suit them, deep in the first chamber on the side towards the fin, and that area became known as Immortals’ Row, where others didn’t go without asking. But it had been a distinct existence from that of the barracks, and the increase in activity all around and cautious rise in the number and frequency of visitors began to map developing friendships and led to story-telling sessions that became a popular evening activity. Beings with centuries of experience had a lot of stories to tell, some hilarious, some entirely baffling; there were also shared experiences of displacement and building New Hope, and conversation discovered interests in common. The children found lessons altered to include basilisk lectures about kinds of rock and what sort of crevices weren’t safe to explore, and ogre observations (supplemented by miners) about how to excavate, shore, and brace.

            Kel was able to spend time with Tobe and Peachblossom, teaching her son pattern dances and comforting the fretful gelding. His leg was easier but the muscle might never be wholly restored—probably a good thing, given the weak, patched-up bones but a loss and indignity he resented. After grooming him and Hoshi extensively one evening she was putting Tobe to bed when he named the problem.

            “He’s bored, Ma, more than anything, and not just because he’s stuck in the stable so much. He’s the brightest horse I’ve ever known except Master Numair’s Spots and the Wildmage’s Cloud. They’d keep him happy because they’d be company. Hoshi’s very clever—she always knows what’s needed—but Peachblossom’s clever like a person.”

            Kel didn’t have to think twice to know he was right. Peachblossom had known Daine longer than Hoshi, and spent far more time at the Palace in her proximity as well as receiving doses of her magic when Kel had first acquired him, to teach him spoken commands and obviate the need for spurring. And while he’d seen little of her in the north before his injury, and Kel didn’t think the healing would have smartened him any more, he’d spent a great deal of the last seven months with Tobe, whose horse-magic wasn’t remotely in Daine’s league but would have kept the gelding on his toes and allowed conversation. Her mind raced and after a moment she hauled a surprised Tobe out of bed, wrapped him in a blanket, and carried him back to the stables.

            One very odd conversation via Tobe’s empathy later a deal was struck, and Peachblossom’s stall door pinned open. A flat wooden block on the sliding latch of the stable doors put it within his capacity and Kel gave him the run of the main level, shelf, and terrace while he agreed to walk only, not to bite unless very provoked, and to stale only in straw laid down by the livestock pens. When Neal discovered next day that his equine nemesis was free to wander at will he was so appalled he could barely speak—but that was succeeded by an impassioned recitation of near-fatal injuries he had suffered at the hands—hooves—teeth—of the most savage piece of horseflesh between Vassa and Olorun, the further south being excluded only because he hadn’t seen enough of their horses to know if some unimaginably ghastly southern brute might be worse. Knowing Neal had some justification and seeing his performance entrancing Tobe and a growing number of children and adults, Kel left him to it. The big gelding soon became a familiar sight on the main level, accompanied by Jump or the sparrows. His pleasure in exercise and variety was a relief to Kel and he began to make himself useful, making night rounds of the shelf, keeping sentries silent company from below and clopping a hoof warningly or sending Jump to growl at closer quarters if he found them less attentive to duty than he thought proper. Besides amusing him this gave him a renewed sense of purpose, annealing lingering guilt at failing Kel in battle, and the improvement in his deeper spirit was a balm to her own.

            She was also pleased, though with more mixed feelings, to learn from a despatch carried by couriers via Steadfast that an attack by wolfships on Mindelan had been more-or-less foiled. Three had come charging in one grey dawn but the naval ships had not been caught napping, and while both had taken casualties and damage, the wolfships had fared far worse, two sunk and one limping away with fewer oarsmen than it needed and boldly carved prow blasted away by a royal warmage. Whether the attack had been planned as retribution for Kel’s killing of Blayce and Stenmun no-one was sure—there had been sporadic attacks along the coast throughout late summer and autumn—but her mulling was interrupted by a white-faced Neal, who’d received letters in the same batch. He dropped into the chair in front of her desk, meeting her eyes.

            “Dom’s been hurt. A Scanran axeman he thought he’d killed and stepped over got his leg and he’s lost what father calls a lot of muscle.”

            Kel’s heart had stopped as Neal spoke, or so it seemed, but the fresh sorrow was still behind the glass in her mind. She found herself aware Neal had never known of her feelings, any more than Dom, and the genuine shock and worry she was showing seemed an act that hid her true yet muted distress. Self-dislike burned her.

            “Oh Mithros. Poor Dom. How bad is it, Neal?”

            “It could have been fatal but they got him to the healers in time to save life and leg. But he’s like Peachblossom, Kel. He won’t fight again.”

            “He’s leaving the Own?”

            “He has to, Kel. Gods.”

            “What will he do? Do you know?”

            “I don’t think anyone does, but he’s going back to Masbolle.” Neal rubbed wet eyes. “Curse it. He loved the Own and never wanted to work at the fief. Now he’ll have to, I suppose.”

            “His leg won’t recover? Muscle regrows, surely?

            “Not when you’re missing a great collop of it. I’ve seen axe-wounds like that. They always leave weakness. Hurt like anything, too, until the skin regrows, and even then. Gods.”

            The news brought commiserations from many, remembering Dom’s vital part in their rescue and that it was his squad who’d made Kel’s Haven command flag, still in use at New Hope.  After consultation a letter of condolence and warm wishes for recovery was written by Idrius Valestone in his best hand and signed on a succession of sheets by all surviving Havenites, adults and children alike. To Kel’s quiet satisfaction all could now write their names, and the parents their children’s, so even toddlers found their fingers inked and touched to paper. Baby Haven, her mark. Adding her own note of commiseration in friendship, with an invitation to visit as soon as he could and small gifts—a book from Neal, a pot of sweet pickle Yuki made, and some sketches of New Hope by a Goatstrack woman with a fair hand—Kel sent the letter to Mastiff for forwarding to Masbolle.

            How Kel actually felt was a mystery to her. In one way she didn’t think her feelings had changed—were she to dream of any man, or in waking life imagine what it would be to be held and touched by one, it would be Dom; but she hadn’t done either since the attack, and didn’t suppose she would again. If any sexuality had been left her after losing the physical capacity it was behind glass with her pain and rage. Sometimes she wasn’t even sure she missed desire, distracting and embarrassing as it had often seemed, but when she pissed or bathed and felt numb godflesh where once there had been rich sensation she knew Neal had been right. She and Peachblossom had been crippled together.

            Any temptation to brood was displaced by a new mystery, or the solution to an older one. One frosty dawn, after a night during which the guards reported odd noises, Kel looked disbelievingly down the roadway through her spyglass and with half-a-dozen men trotted down to a bumpy white mound beyond the moatbridge. Arriving she found she hadn’t been mistaken: piled neatly were seven tauros skulls looking as if they’d been boiled. Horns grew from bone plugs and were still attached, as were flat teeth; empty eye sockets stared in all directions.

            Wary of traps Kel summoned Forist and Anner as well as Neal and Seaver to probe magically for spells or cruder dangers, but none could sense anything but bone, horn, and ivory. Eventually a baffled Kel had the pile carefully picked apart, and the skulls put into the little space between gatehouse and fin, with the ready bags of rocks for cradles. Were the skulls a cruel stormwing joke or an incomprehensible compliment? Neal dryly suggested it might be stormwing art, until Seaver contended that in that case it should be a known behaviour, which it certainly wasn’t; how often did the steel-winged immortals play with other immortals’ corpses? No-one could remember an instance of defiled spidren, hurrok, or giant corpses, but most were burned by whoever killed them. Even immortals weren’t sure what to make of it, Var’istaan and Kuriaju denying knowledge of the stormwing eyries near the Dragonlands, never having been to that part of the Divine Realms. Recalling Daine’s stories about a stormwing who’d died in the Immortals War, Kel resolved to ask Quenuresh at their next meeting.

            The spidren also professed herself baffled, but speculated that the tauroses having been chaos-touched might be relevant—a notion that had occurred to Kel but she couldn’t say aloud at New Hope. After sniffing closely, turning skulls in her foremost legs to peer into cavities, Quenuresh did have a firm suggestion as to what Kel should do.

            “For whatever reason, Keladry, they are given as a gift, and it would be wise to honour it. They can serve a practical use that may prove more. If you can bear it—and you should—set them along the roadway, at the top, where they may glare warning to respect New Hope, as the Scanran battle standards on your outer walls do.”

            Kel suspected Quenuresh was holding something back but she said only that such skull warnings were an ancient practice, and at any great crossroads in time such as they were living through echoes of history were not to be scorned. Kel was reluctant, viscerally so, not wanting to be reminded daily—with their broad bony foreheads, flat noses, teeth, and horns the skulls were not much different except in colour from the living tauros she still met most nights. But she had come to think Quenuresh wise as well as kind, so despite her distaste she spent a long hour sitting and looking at them, morbidly wondering which one had raped and killed her and which horn had gored whom.  Finding a decision no closer she found Jarna, embroidering in the warm loom-cave, and taking her aside quietly asked what she thought. To her surprise, after a trembling moment the fierce answer supported Quenuresh: let the murdering beasts’ bones be set there, seen to be punished as fully as any living thing could be. Though taken aback Kel thought ignoring mortal rage and immortal advice was not sensible for any commander; so the masons set to work, and soon seven skulls stared menacingly down at the roadway immediately below the turn.

            When Uinse’s men on gate duty promptly named them, in descending order, Chargy, Bargy, Horny, Toothy, Dimwit, Flatnose, and Pizzle she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, and did neither. Her defensively dry observation that Pizzle seemed odd man out got a shocked laugh from the men, as if she shouldn’t be able to say the word, and she retreated wondering how on earth she’d explain it to Wyldon when he next visited and how soon the tale would reach him. She’d have to put it in her next report; and a moment later realised her report was due, for next day was last of the month. Cursing she set about the inventory.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight — Devotions

November

 

Yuki’s pregnancy changed the travel plans. She began to experience morning sickness, and though one of Neal’s inevitable teas helped alleviate it he became concerned about the ride to Corus and changes in diet it would involve. Her protests that she would be fine were not, Kel thought, as forceful as they might have been, and diminished as the weather continued wet. Neal was torn between wanting his multiplying Yamani rose secure in Corus and not wanting her to risk the journey, contemplating with equal discontent leaving her alone at New Hope in winter or behind in Corus when he had to return north. Despite the loss of personal support Kel offered him leave to remain in Corus until June—but Yuki was having none of that and suggested she and Neal should both remain at New Hope. He was willing but would have to seek the King’s leave to ignore the summons Kel and all the knights had received, which she didn’t think would be forthcoming—but was wrong. Relaying His Majesty’s approval and congratulations Wyldon smiled at her.

            “It’s you he and the Council want to see, Keladry.” Kel scowled and Wyldon waved a hand. “The others were included in a fit of Palace thoroughness, but while I’m sure they’d have interesting accounts to give they can only supplement yours, especially where the gods are concerned. Queenscove’s request is reasonable and no-one wants to drag a healer away from his wife’s first pregnancy.”

            “Mmm. I’m concerned about their being snowed in here, though.”

            Wyldon shrugged. “Lady Yukimi couldn’t have a better healer on hand in Corus except Duke Baird, and he’ll be back here in spring. Northern cold aside, I don’t see she’s any worse off. In any case the King says they can stay if they want. And I don’t suppose you mind your people having a first-rate healer during the winter.”

            That was true, especially as there were pregnancies more advanced than Yuki’s. New Hope should add several souls before she could hope to be back, and while there was a hedgewitch among the refugees, healer Morri didn’t have much experience of delivery—an issue that bothered Kel though she hadn’t wanted to broach the topic of childbed mishap in Yuki’s presence.

            “Alright, I’ll tell them. Is there anything else?”

            “A couple of things.” He flipped papers, extracting some. “Your last report was another of what Vanget has taken to calling your ‘eyebrow-lifters’—not unreasonably.” His mouth quirked but his eyes were dark. “Did you have to include the nicknames the soldiers gave those skulls? Vanget’s laughter was immoderate but he’s as puzzled as we all are. There’s no doubt it was stormwings?”

            “It wasn’t anyone here, Wyldon. Those skulls were boiled clean and no-one here did that, or placed them where we found them.”

            “Fair enough. I suppose it’s just that a soldiers’ joke would be easier than this … mystery.” He rubbed his brow. “You said a stormwing apologised to you about their desecration of Haven. Have you tried asking one what in the mortal realms they think they’re doing?”

            “There’ve been none to be seen so I’ve not had the chance, but if I get it I surely will. I wanted to ask Daine as well—she’s the only person I know who’s ever said she had a stormwing friend.”

            “Oh, during the Immortals War. I do remember her distress when she returned from Port Legann.”

            “Rikash Moonsword.”

            “That’s the one. An odd name for such a creature.”

            “An odd stormwing, I think. Daine said she once dined with him at her parents’ house in the Divine Realms, on the same occasion that Numair met Lord Gainel, as well as the Badger and an animal god I didn’t understand at all, a … duckmole, she said, called Broadfoot.”

            Wyldon sighed. “I saw him very briefly during the Immortals War when that enormous dragon brought her and Numair to Corus—some sort of beaver, so far as I could tell. With a beak. The dragon wanted to talk to him and Daine said he’d been stopping Malady from attacking us. I never did understand what she meant.”

            Kel didn’t understand either. “Sounds like a good thing.”

            “Indeed. I’ll ask about the skulls when I can—she was here last week and may be again next. She flew over Rathhausak ten days ago, by the way, and said nothing had been done to fix the castle. It’s a shell.”

            “Huh. No-one to care, I suppose. The Scanran refugees say Maggur hadn’t visited since he installed Blayce, five years back, and the village is deserted.” She shrugged again, thinking how rotten a man and ruler the Scanran was, whatever his strengths; she might have reservations about King Jonathan but there was no comparison. “His business. Do you want me to remove the skulls? I’m not sure I like them but my people do.”

            “No, no. Gods know I’d understand if you’d just destroyed them but they were given to you, whatever the reason, and Quenuresh is correct it’s an ancient practice to display defeated enemies in that way. Haztor of Pearlmouth records it.”

            Kel considered. “I think Quenuresh meant ancient in her terms, Wyldon. I once heard her say something had happened ‘only thrice since the Godwars’ and Neal says no-one has the slightest idea when those were except that it was at least ten thousand years ago.”

            “Mithros!” Curiosity overcame him for once. “What had happened only three times in all that span?”

            “Oh … what the Black God did.” Conscience squirmed. “Something he said, actually.” Wyldon raised his eyebrows. “I saw his face.”

            His eyebrows snapped down. “You didn’t say that before.”

            “No, it’s … very personal.” She took refuge. “I’ll be talking to Lady Alanna about it. I’m sorry not to say, but …”

            “No, no. Gods are personal, I understand that, especially a meeting with that one.” Obviously concerned he didn’t probe. ”On another matter, then, how’s that horse of yours?”

            That news she hadn’t included in her report and explained how Peachblossom fared, adding with a straight face that he’d taken to inspecting the nightwatch and garnering a laugh that pleased her.

            “That sounds splendid. The sentries must be quaking.”

            “More or less. But they say he keeps them company, as Jump and other dogs do.” She smiled wistfully. “He checks in at the gatehouse regularly. That they keep apples there has nothing to do with it.”

            “Naturally. Still, I’d like to see him doing rounds.” Wyldon seemed to reach a decision. “I shan’t be able to do so for a while—I doubt I’ll get over to you again before the snows—but Owen’ll be along next week.”

            “Really? It’ll be nice to see him, but what warrants a trip?”

            “He’s fretting about his Ordeal and a trip in charge of some escort squads and a mailbag will occupy him nicely. By the time he’s gets back we’ll need to be leaving for Corus. And that reminds me—I’ve been meaning to ask you if you’d be willing to instruct him with me.”

            She managed not to exclaim. “Of course, Wyldon. I’m honoured you’d ask me.” She’d forgotten Owen was due to undergo his Ordeal of Knighthood this Midwinter; it seemed odd that it was less than a year since her own, odder still that she’d be instructing another, but the gift of the offer was intensely pleasing.

            “Excellent. I couldn’t find a better knight for the job and Owen will agree.” He smiled warmly. “He is in a bit of a fidget about it all, though. Understandably, but he does have such a lot of energy to fidget with. The trip’s as much to save me strangling him as to give him something to do, even if only guarding a mailbag.”

            She thought of an antsy Owen and grinned. “He’ll be fine. Anything in that mailbag to concern me?”

            “Not that I know of.” There was a blandness in his voice Kel mistrusted and he raised hands at her look. “Truly, Keladry. The escort is because there’ll be a commander’s purse—I realised you’ve never been issued one and you should have something on hand, if only for occasional food purchases when opportunity knocks.”

            “Oh.” She frowned. “Not many of those except from the Vassa fishermen, sometimes, and they’re happy to barter.”

            “Even so. I bet you’re personally out-of-pocket by now,”

            “Well …” She had paid for fish, and furs to persuade woodmen who survived in the hills between New Hope and Tirrsmont to report Scanran movements and send warning even if meant abandoning traplines.

            “Exactly. I shall expect your first indent to be for reimbursement.”

            “It doesn’t matter, Wyldon, Lalasa insists on tithing to me from her dress-shop so I’ve more money than I can use already. And I won quite a bit jousting during the Progress.”

            “You hang on to it.” The blandness intensified. “Army regulations say a commander should have an official fund, and so you shall.”

            With that she had to be content, waiting for Owen with niggling curiosity. He was preceded by other messengers—a squad accompanying Duke Baird in surprising person, on his way to Corus, and two days later one carrying an urgent letter for Seaver. Baird had been strictly charged by his wife—or rather, an expectant grandmother suffering acute yips—with thrilled approbation and a long, long list of advice for Yuki, most of which Baird sensibly ignored. He was concerned to see her, and did, with delighted pleasure of his own as an expectant grandfather; watching him beaming Kel realised he and the Duchess must have waited for this moment for a long time, since the deaths without issue of their elder sons during the Immortals War. Baird was also deeply curious about New Hope and gratifyingly staggered by its reality, expressing unqualified admiration as Kel gave her ever-expanding tour and lingering a day longer than intended to meet Quenuresh, with a set face but impeccable courtesy. The delay meant he was still there when the letter for Seaver arrived, telling him in his mother’s trembling hand that his eldest brother, Lord of Tasride since the untimely death of his father, had died of a cruel fever that carried off a score of people in the fief. As the youngest of three sons Seaver did not stand to inherit and his brother had left a young heir, but his presence was urgently requested and after granting immediate leave Kel waved him sadly off within the hour, Baird and his escort in hasty tow.

            For the next few days Kel couldn’t help remembering being told years before, in the Islands, of the letter informing her parents that Anders had been crippled—just like poor Dom and Peachblossom. She had never, thank Mithros, had notification of a death herself and prayed it would stay that way for a long time. It had been a worry whenever her parents had gone to Yaman, with all the hazards of shipwreck and piracy on the Emerald Sea, and when she’d known Inness was in action on this border, but the tiring business of daily life as page and squire had kept it largely out of her mind. A commander’s work could do that too, she found, though with winter routines keeping fieldwork to a minimum and reducing patrols in number and range the demands of action and paperwork were slackening, so she threw herself into weapons training with gusto. Jump and the sparrows had a backlog of neglect made up, and when it turned out that neither all the Scanrans nor the newer convict soldiers were adequately familiar with the various signals used by sparrows, dogs, and the marmalade cat who lived with Fanche and Saefas she spent several mornings rectifying the deficiency.

            The arrival of Northwatch Company Fourteen under Mikal of Holtwood was thus doubly welcome, and she watched them marching crisply up valley one happily dry morning with satisfaction. They brought a wagon-train of personal gear and additional food, on which the cooks fell with interest while—after a long, interesting process of naming and declaring under the lintel—an empty barracks filled with men unpacking and stashing spare uniforms and what few personal items each had. Mikal she’d never met but Brodhelm spoke well of him and he seemed competent and pleasant—a swarthy man with a welcome glint of humour and a no-nonsense manner. With many interested onlookers she formed the arrivals up on the green with offduty squads from Brodhelm’s and Uinse’s companies, introduced herself, her knights, captains, civilian leaders, and resident immortals, explained about Quenuresh and the griffins, went carefully through standing orders with flat-voiced emphases, and paired every new man with one of Brodhelm’s or Uinse’s. The sponsors had the duty of showing their charges around and making introductions, and the charges the responsibility of shadowing their sponsors on duty for a week to learn the ropes.

            “You’ll find it different here,” she concluded, generating wry nods from men already bug-eyed at what they’d seen and stealing glances at basilisks and ogres. “But in a good way, I promise. And don’t think it’s any kind of rest camp. You’ll see action here. King Maggot’s been a bit distracted this summer, and the central front’s been quiet for the most part—but we’ve faced several attacks in the last two months and taken casualties, military and civilian. And snow’s not fallen yet so always keep alert. We have regular training sessions for everyone, as you’ve probably heard, and as well as the usual staff, sword-, spear-, and bow-work there’ll be tools and weapons you may not be familiar with—griffin-bands that mean you can’t be fooled by illusions, slings, and ways of using spears as slicing weapons, not just to stab. We’ve plenty of horses so we do lancework as well, for everyone who can ride well enough, not just knights—they’re the weapon of choice against giants and tauroses. And as you saw we’ve had dealings with those. What the lads call our trophies I’ll leave them to tell. Now, to your tours.”

            Keeping her voice cheerful had been an effort but she thought she’d managed, and knew she’d done better than in her last address to assembled soldiers however her mind still keened behind its glass. She directed squads to start in different places and rotate in different directions, so they were spread out, and after watching the efficient bustle for a moment retired to headquarters with Mikal, Brodhelm, Uinse, and Merric to begin proper integration of Company Fourteen into the duty schedule, other rosters, and contingency plans for attacks of all kinds. With three full companies, two regular, all sorts of things could be done properly or augmented, from archers firing by turns on the alures to more thorough patrolling, each with a host of details and consequences. Mikal was surprised by the range of what New Hope did as routine, and pleased with the friendly atmosphere. He was junior to Brodhelm but senior to Uinse and Merric, and would be third-in-command—Brodhelm’s second in her absence—so she in turn was pleased by his professionalism and flexibility.

            They were still at it next afternoon when Owen’s arrival with two escort squads was reported, and she left them to wrangle about how best to organise practices. Owen had made it as far as the shelf when she rounded the stables to see that he was riding a warhorse Wyldon must have given him to replace Happy, a big bay gelding similar to his lamented predecessor, and leading an even larger liver chestnut.

            “Kel! How splendid to see you!” He dismounted and threw his arms around her in a crushing brotherly hug as she reached him.

            “Oof. Put me down, Owen! That’s better.”

            “Sorry, Kel, discipline and all that, I know, but it is good to see you. And you’ve everything running sharp as a pin to judge from the guards. I like your tauros heads too—they’re very jolly.” His face suddenly fell. “But it was horrid what happened. Are you alright?”

            Time as Wyldon’s squire at Mastiff had taught Owen skill in eavesdropping and even some tact, but his artless friendship was all his own. One of her bets with herself when she’d learned he was coming was that Chargy, Bargy, Horny, Toothy, Dimwit, Flatnose, and Pizzle would each be jollier than the last. Affectionately she clapped his shoulder.

            “I’m fine, Owen. You’ve a new horse, I see. He’s a beauty.”

            “Isn’t he just?” Owen beamed. “He’s really called Windstrider because his dam and sire were the same as Happy’s who was really Windtreader but I call him Happy Two because he is! And the liver chestnut’s for you, if you’d like him, with my Lord’s compliments.”

            Kel was trying to parse Owen’s second sentence when the third caught up with her. “What did you say, Owen?”

            “Which what? He’s Happy Two because he’s so like Happy One and he’s happy too. It’s a pun.”

            Kel took a deep breath. “I guessed that, Owen, and I’m happy for you and Happy Two, too.” He grinned. “You said something after that.”

            “The chestnut’s for you. My Lord didn’t want you without a proper warhorse. Hoshi’s splendid but you need a gelding, so he’s giving you this one. He does have a name I can tell you if you want but my Lord said you should feel free to name him yourself so I wasn’t to use it.”

            Shock sank into her. “Wyldon’s giving him to me?”

            “Yes. He wants to and you need a horse. Poor old Peachblossom. I was sorry to hear about him, but his doing night rounds sounds fun. What’s the problem, Kel?”

            “I can’t accept a horse like that. He must be worth a fortune.”

            “Why not? He’s a good ’un, Kel, and right for you. My Lord’s got a wonderful eye for matching horse and rider.”

            “Owen, it’s not right. I ca—”

            “Oh bosh. Of course it’s right, Kel.” His grey eyes were suddenly shrewd. “It’s what my Lord has that he can give, and it’s what friends do when they’re worried, and they can. You can’t tell me you’re not friends. He calls you Keladry in private now, not the Lady Knight, and you just called him by name alone. I like to think he and I are quite close but if I did that he’d freeze me to death in a heartbeat and quite right too.”

            “But it’s …” What was it, exactly? Food for slanderers like Tirrsmont? Probably, but she wouldn’t let that stop her in any other way. A generosity trying to compensate her for what had happened? Perhaps, and she half-understood it might be more complicated; that her rape while under his command, however distantly, might be more difficult for him to deal with than her death in battle would have been. And it wasn’t just embarrassment at a gift beyond her means—she’d accepted gifts as costly from Lady Alanna without knowing who they were from; but this was from Wyldon who … she faced it: who had in a strange way become a second father to her as well as a friend, whose praise meant more to her even than Raoul’s and not because it was harder to earn. Impatient with the delay the liver chestnut poked his muzzle over Owen’s shoulder and she was lost, but there was another thing she must do.

            As Owen stepped aside, smiling, she considered the gelding gravely and stepped forward to let him snuffle at her, then blew gently into his nostrils. He had an irregular blaze and faint list and she wanted to inspect every marvellous inch of him but instead took his reins, told Owen to put the mailsack in her office and settle himself in a guest room, and led him down to the main level, whistling to call Peachblossom, loitering with intent by the infirmary. Exchanging a stare with the newcomer, eyes flicking to her, he walked slowly by the paths to the green, along its west side, and stopped a few feet away.

            She kept her voice as crisp as she could. “Peachblossom, this fellow’s been given to me. Will you two get along?”

            The horses looked at one another and she found Tobe by her side.

            “Is he yours, Ma? For what Peachblossom can’t do any more?”

            “If it works out.”

            Tobe studied the horse with interest. “It will. What’s his name?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “Let’s find out.” Tobe stepped forward to greet the newcomer, resting a hand on his muzzle for a moment afterwards. “I’m not sure he knows it himself. He’d like a name, though.”

            “What do you think, Tobe?”

            “I dunno.” He turned to Peachblossom, reaching hands to his neck looking closely at him for a long minute, then back at her. “Peachblossom says he’s called Alder, and thinks he’ll be alright with training. He says Alder has a good heart and is strong enough for you.”

            Kel was having a difficult time with emotions rising as they hadn’t for a long time, and gave Peachblossom a hard hug, trying to control herself, before fishing apples from her pocket for both horses and showing Alder to a stall by Peachblossom’s and Hoshi’s. The placid mare seemed happy to greet a new friend, snuffling softly, and with Tobe’s help Kel set about grooming Alder thoroughly. Peachblossom stayed, inspecting the liver chestnut himself, and after a while Tobe looked down at her as she ran hands over Alder’s fetlocks and cannons.

            “Peachblossom says he’s smart but hasn’t had any of Daine’s magic. He thinks he can teach Alder your basic commands but you should ask Daine to make him smarter. Then he could teach Alder what you need in battle and how you like things done.”

            Kel’s emotions were bubbling again, but she nodded before looking her gratitude at Peachblossom.

            “It’s alright, Ma.” Tobe’s voice was soft. “He knows you need another horse. He’s glad you’ve got a good one who’ll keep you safe.”

            It was too much and tears filled her eyes but she dared not let them flow; once started she’d never stop. But she did stand to hug Peachblossom’s neck again, tightly, letting drops she couldn’t stop trickle into his mane. The arrival of Jump, tail wagging, and the flutter of sparrows alighting on Peachblossom let her extricate herself with some shreds of dignity, and she made new introductions to Alder.

            It was another hour before she dragged herself out of the stables to find Owen and receive the mail, including the promised purse for which she’d had the smiths make a lockbox bolted to the floor in a corner of her office; Tobe's royal purse was already there. Owen was full of chatter about Happy Two and final training he’d been doing but after ten minutes of breathless and confusing grammar fell silent, turned huge eyes on her, and took a deep breath.

            “Kel, I’m terrified of the Ordeal. Suppose it just minces me up? I know I’m not supposed to talk about it but you talked to the Chamber, just like you’d talk to a person. Will I be alright?”

            Wyldon’s reminder of Owen’s Ordeal had left Kel thinking about her need to speak to the elemental—or rather King Jonathan’s desire that she should; left to herself she’d be happy never to talk to it again—but she hadn’t anticipated this, which she might have. And, she realised, Wyldon had. It was why he’d sent Owen with his astonishing gift rather than coming himself, and it meant he thought she could offer the boy—no, the man—something he couldn’t. She got up to close the door and waved Owen to one of the chairs, taking another opposite him.

            “Not just like you’d talk to a person, Owen. The Chamber’s not a person and doesn’t think like one. But it’s not evil, just hard as nails and not interested in anything except testing you. You’ll be fine. You’ve a heart the size of a mountain and your wild courage is a byword already.”

            “Really?”

            “Oh yes. My Lord of Cavall’s squire who thinks everything’s jolly.”

            He smiled weakly. “It’s a good word.”

            “And you’re a good man.” She considered. “Have you touched the Chamber door.”

            He looked down. “Once, on a dare. It was awful.”

            “Your worst fears played out and you helpless to do anything?”

            “Yes.” His voice was a whisper. “How did you know?”

            “Because that’s what it did when I touched the door, and one of the things it does most, so far as I can tell. I’ve never been sure why, but I think it’s about willingness to go on fighting, whatever the odds, whatever happens. You may get more of the same. But it does other things too—I can’t discuss it, but things that give you choices, or make you … well, let go of something. I suspect that’s what happened to Joren—he couldn’t bend, or let go of all that hate he had for me and everyone he disapproved of. But you’re good all through, and a first-rate fighter. You’ll be a knight by the New Year.”

            “Thank you, Kel. It means a lot to me that you think so, and that’s very helpful about Joren. I’ve always wondered what really happened to him, why he failed. Died.” He swallowed. “And I can’t ask my Lord about that. Anyway, he’s a stickler for rules, and won’t talk about the Chamber except to say it’s a hammer but fair and wants people to pass if it can.”           

            That was very Wyldon and Kel sighed. “I wonder about that rule, Owen. There’s no rule we can’t talk about what happens when we touch the door, but no-one does. I didn’t, and I bet you didn’t either.”

            “No. I couldn’t.”

            “I know. But that’s shame, isn’t it? At being so helpless. And sick rage at whatever nightmare vision it cooks up.” She made a decision. “I can tell you some of the ones it dumped on me, if you like.”

            He stared at her. “You touched the door more than once?”

            She nodded, smiling wryly. “Every six months or so. Neal thought I was mad too, but I thought everyone did and just didn’t say anything.”

            “Mithros! Will it help me to know, do you think?”

            “I can’t say, Owen. Ordeals are … different, or mine was. These were only visions. When you’re in the Chamber … well, when you’re in it for your Ordeal it’s … more powerful. More real.”

            “I think I’d like to know.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I saw my mother getting killed, and my brother, though I wasn’t there when it happened, and I was helpless, as if I was glued to the ground.”

            “Because your dream of being a knight was bound up with wishing you’d been there to save them.”

            “Yes.”

            “That’s exactly what it does to test your dream. I saw friends and family die, and was stuck just like that. And crippled once, from some tilting accident. There was also a really strange one after Joren’s trial.”

            He hadn’t been at the trial though he’d heard about it, of course, and she repeated Joren’s speech of contempt, engraved on her memory, before relaying her vision of the blond squire coldly purchasing or condemning everyone to slaughter. As she spoke the thought that burned in her mind was that one thing the Chamber had never done was to subject her to rape, or even its threat; only to helplessness in the face of others’ deaths, and she wondered if that was because she hadn’t then deeply feared rape or for some reason of its own. Maybe she’d ask, but for now Owen needed her attention.

            “That’s awful, Kel.” He shuddered. “Like a slave market.”

            “Yes. A slave court, I suppose. But at its core it’s the same thing as all the others, Owen—nightmares happening right in front of you that you can’t stop. But you want to stop them, don’t you? Like you want to stop bandits from killing anyone else’s mother ever again?”

            “Gods, yes. That’s exactly what I want.”

            “So let the Chamber know that, and whatever nightmare fight it shows you don’t ever give up, not for a second. If it’s not a fight, you’ll have to think about what’s right to do in whatever situation it is. But trust your heart and instincts and you’ll be fine with that, just as you will with the fights.”

            He nodded, colour returning. “Thanks Kel. That helps a lot. I’d got so I couldn’t think about it clearly at all—there was just this dread and a great blank wall I couldn’t see through or over or anything.”           

            “I know, Owen. It’s what you’ve worked towards for eight years and it’s like walking towards a mountain. It just gets bigger and bigger. But it’s still the mountain you could see whole when you started towards it, and it has a summit you can reach if you keep going.”

            “I can do that.”

            “Yes, you can. Now come meet Mikal of Holtwood. His Northwatch Company Fourteen marched in yesterday and I abandoned him to Brodhelm and Merric too long ago. Let’s find out how far they’ve got.”

 

* * * * *

 

Alder proved a pleasure to ride and more than a practical restoration. Kel loved Hoshi for herself and as Raoul’s gift, and the mare had been a comfort, strong and uncomplaining even in the vilest weather; but she was smaller than Peachblossom and without the gelding’s bracing attitude and ferocity in battle. Alder didn’t quite have the attitude—he’d never suffered as Peachblossom had before he met her—but he had the warhorse mind and, whatever Wyldon had taught him as a foal or Peachblossom was telling him now, seemed to understand basic spoken commands; she soon discarded the blunt spurs she’d reluctantly attached to her boots and relied on voice alone.

            On a bright, clear day, gold among the lead of winter’s early coinage, she commandeered a work party with two squads of archers for security and set up a quintain in the field below the western glacis. Alder snorted eagerly when he saw it, and after three hours of steady, careful, and exhilarating work with the target-dummy, then oak and willow rings, she knew she could confidently meet anyone in the jousting-lanes on his back, as she had on Peachblossom’s. He was strong, steady, and responsive, his canter even and gallop rhythmic in the way she loved that enabled her to be absolutely sure how her lance tip would move. On her last run, when the wind dropped for a moment, she managed to pin the willow-ring at a full gallop and whooped triumph as she pulled up and used that hard wrist flick to send it spinning for Jump to catch as it skimmed over him. Watching men cheered, and in the evening, after her staffwork was seen to be equally good in disarming Company Fourteen’s champion, she noticed a new snap in the way Mikal’s men regarded her. They’d seemed to like her well enough and plainly respected the way she ran a tight command with—for the most part—a light hand; now they knew for themselves she was a fighter to fear, for all her unusual ways and the strange place she commanded.

            That night she gasped upright from the hillside after the worst episode in more than a week, hand again clutching fiercely at her numb breast. Shaken and nauseated, she found herself furious—with herself, her ghastly memories, tauroses, the godshat mage who’d been willing to cloak and steer and watch them as they did what tauroses did; with—she knew it—the gods who hadn’t let her die when she should, nor be annealed of her pain in the Peaceful Realms, but had patched her up like stuffing mortar into crumbled brick and sent her straight back to do something they wouldn’t or couldn’t explain. And who hadn’t sent anyone else the tauroses had slain back with her—a guilt rankling like a saddle-burr, though she shuddered to imagine what it would have been like if the women who’d died had been mended as she had, or husbands and guards returned with great grey swathes of chest and stomach.

            Dressing warmly she went to the shrines, wandering up and down before them trying to sort her thoughts. The unfeeling flesh she’d been given might have saved her life but seemed a trick, and she didn’t think it was Lord Sakuyo’s style, nor remotely Lord Mithros’s; her gaze rested most often on the Black God’s hooded statue, thinking of the illimitable sadness in the young face she’d seen, his special mercy, the cackle in his Hag daughter’s voice. Why did the god of death have a daughter anyway, let alone one to all appearances far older than he and as ugly as he was beautiful? It made no sense—but what god did? She tried to bear down on anger and frame a prayer to the Hag, thinking her father’s shrine might be a portal to reach her, but the spikes of rage were too great. I see your clumsy hopes and well-meaning unattractiveness and grant you humiliating perdition. Did she have to carry stigmata of her failure to protect those poor Tirrsmonters? If she had to be sent back, couldn’t she at least be sent whole?

            Peachblossom found her burning holes in the Black God’s shrine with her eyes and nudged her, slobbering concern. Chilled and shaking she went with him to get tea from the gatehouse, saying to Jacut on nightwatch only that she couldn’t sleep, then filched apples from the box the duty watch kept and took Peachblossom back to the stables. After sharing the apples and stroking all her horses she eventually fell asleep in Peachblossom’s stall, head and arms pillowed on a basilisk-warmed block as he stood guard that no more nightmares should pass. Tobe found her at dawn, eyes full of worry and scold, but she woke feeling comforted from a dream of her childhood, full of breathless laughter with Cricket and Yuki about something that faded as her eyes opened. Standing with a groan she ruffled Tobe’s hair, promised him she felt better, and sent a prayer of thanks to Lord Gainel with apologies for her mortal inability to understand—withstand—the gods’ purposes.

            It was her day to deliver cheese, and after a morning going over contingency plans with Brodhelm, probing for weaknesses and noting what would need regular drills while she was away, she saddled Hoshi and rode with Connac’s squad to Spidren Wood. Besides making the delivery she invited Quenuresh to a first full meeting of New Hope’s council next day: there had been no need yet, but with departure nearing and the new company Kel wanted to be sure all were clear on what mattered. Quenuresh agreed it would be sensible, and turned out to be in a talkative mood, explaining cheerfully when Kel enquired that spidrens weren’t bothered by rain or cold and had built themselves a good shelter anyway. If really heavy snow fell she might ask to come into New Hope’s cave-system for a bit, for the younglings’ sake, but might equally stay put under heavy webbing and blanketing snow with a fire for cheer and cooking rather than warmth.

            “We have enough preserved food from you, and smoked game of our own taking, to be fine for a good while, Keladry.”

            “May I ask how you pass the time?”

            “Immortals have a lot of practice at passing time.” Quenuresh’s voice was bland, her eyes warm. “We talk and groom. The younglings have webwork to practice, and games that are fun. I believe mortals call it cats’-cradles though I have never understood why.”

            Filled with imaginings of the glory a multi-player spidrens’-cradle might be Kel trotted back up the valley, observing with satisfaction her more prosaic cradles filled with rocks. They did look obvious, though, especially with trees bare, and scrub to screen them would be wise; Adner could advise her what would grow best. A horn-call from the distant gatehouse telling her riders had been sighted brought attention sharply back to the moment and the whole party to a fast canter in tighter formation, but the reply identifying friends came almost at once. As the distance closed Kel saw for herself the horse ridden by a stocky knight just crossing the limestone bridge, a squad behind, and relaxed with an apprehensive pang. That horse she’d know anywhere.

            “Kel!” The Lioness wore full mail but only a bascinet and called out cheerfully as the parties converged. “It’s good to see you. That’s a fine-looking horse.”

            Kel reined in beside her. “Isn’t he? Tobe says he’s called Alder.”

            “Tobe? Oh, the boy you adopted. Well, he should know. Alder, eh? Where d’you get him? Is he one of Cavall’s?”

            “Yes. Wyldon gave him to me.” As purple eyes widened it struck Kel that a gift of Wyldon’s had replaced a gift of Alanna’s. “I’m so sorry about Peachblossom.”

            “Goddess, don’t apologise, Kel. It’s a risk we run. I was just surprised at Cavall—I came through Mastiff last night and he didn’t say anything. Decent of him, the old curmudgeon.” She grinned at Kel. “But Raoul did tell me, chortling the while, you’d been invited to first-name terms. Astonishing. You have mellowed him. I’d be tempted to make him the same offer just to spook him but we have too much fun Cavalling and Pirate’s-Swooping one another and I’m way ahead on that deal.”

            Alanna’s irreverence was bracing and Kel smiled. “He’s been a great help, truly. He’s asked me to help instruct Owen as well.”

            “Has he indeed? Now that is a good sign. But let’s get in, Kel, and you can show me this amazing place of yours. It’s perishing out here.”

            The Lioness’s dislike of cold was as notorious as Raoul’s of ceremony and Kel swung in beside her, waving Connac’s squad to fall in behind. They paused at the moatbridge, Alanna whistling appreciation when she heard what lurked under the water, then looking up at the glacis and whistling again. Reaching the tauros skulls she scowled ferociously.

            “Cavall did mention these. Blasted things.”

            “Tauroses or stormwings?”

            “Both, but I meant tauroses. Goddess, Kel, I was so sorry to—”

            “Not here, please.” Kel’s mask was firmly in place. “I thought I’d hate seeing the skulls but it’s not too bad and Jarna, who survived the attack but lost her husband, comes to look at them often. So do the orphans. Did Wyldon tell you their nicknames?”

            “He did, though he could hardly bring himself to say ‘Pizzle’ in my hearing.” Her glance was keen. “I was surprised you’d allowed it.”

            “I didn’t have much choice, any more than with that absurd Protector stuff.” They negotiated the turn, Kel waving Alanna ahead at the narrows. “You know about the Honesty Gate?”

            “I certainly do and I want one of my own. George is trying to get the griffins who live down from the Swoop to fix one for us but we need Daine to interpret.” She pulled up under the lintel, raising a gauntleted hand to Merric, waiting as duty captain with an honour guard hastily assembling behind him. “Sir Alanna of Olau and Pirate’s Swoop. I mean no harm to New Hope or any who dwell here. That’s it?”

            “Yes. Try telling a lie, though.”

            Alanna’s mouth opened, then closed. “Goddess, that works alright. Very useful. And anyone under it can’t be fooled by illusions?”

            “Not in the least. Numair couldn’t cast one that fooled it.”

            “Huh. Illusion’s not his strongest talent, though.”

            “No, but neither could Quenuresh, and it is hers. She can vanish in broad daylight almost to fool a griffin-band but couldn’t beat the gate.”

            “Well, well. Interesting. I want to meet her.”

            “She’s coming tomorrow for a Council meeting.”

            “Good.”

            They cleared the gatehouse and dismounted. Kel let Merric speak formalities, thanked the guard, and asked Merric to deal with billeting.

            “Food? Or just a hot drink?”

            “Food would be good, once I’m out of this armour.”

            “Then let’s go see the messhall before I show you round.”

            The Lioness’s wonder at the gleaming, warm pillars of the messhall was matched by appreciation of the food the duty cook produced.

            “Whoosh! If the Green Lady can do this, she’s more powerful than Daine implies.’ She cackled. “Has it reconciled Neal to vegetables?”

            Kel grinned. “Not yet, but it’s definitely making inroads, especially the cabbage. So are Yuki’s tsukemono.”

            “What?”

            “Yamani pickles. Neal absent-mindedly ate a whole bowl of onion-rings in sake the other night before he realised what he was doing.”

            “Wonders will never cease—not here, anyway, by the looks of it.” Alanna’s face grew serious, though not grave. “You know you’ve done something amazing here, Kel? Cavall waxed positively lyrical last night about your defences and he wasn’t wrong. He’s told me about that poltroon Tirrsmont and your petition to the Council as well. I’m inclined to agree with him, Goddess help me, that you should just claim it as your own fief, but I’ll support whatever you want. Raoul too, and Ennor of Frasrlund. I hold his proxy and he was clear he wanted the strongest possible defence in the centre under someone who knows what they’re doing, not some pissant second son from the Corus pack.”

            “Oh. Good.” Kel swallowed, loathing politics though she was touched that the Lord of Frasrlund, whom she’d never met, should support her. “I can’t just claim it, Alanna. It wouldn’t be right. I told Wyldon, it’s no time for people to be angling for themselves when we’re fighting a war.”

            “Yes, he said that too.” She received a piercing look. “I have to say, Kel, if there’s a chance to get it for you I’ll be inclined to do that, however you think yourself undeserving. Jon too, I bet.”

            “It’s not about deserving.” Even to her own ears Kel’s tone was defensive. “These people have had enough of useless overlords. Anak’s Eyrie was brave but stupid and his people paid almost as much as he did for it. And Tirrsmont is just vile.”

            “Useless overlords, surely. I doubt they’ve had enough of you, Kel.”

            “They’ve had all there is.” Her voice was bleak and Alanna clapped her on the shoulder.

            “I doubt it very much but I know how that feels. Let’s find Neal.”

            The reunion of former squire and knight mistress was warm, and Alanna couldn’t resist giving Yuki a healer’s once-over, lingering on her yet unswollen belly and nodding satisfaction, but her attention was drawn to the Green Lady’s spiral. Weighing it in her hand her eyes went distant, then snapped back.

            “This has power from the Goddess as well as the Green Lady. It’s boosted a lot. Mmm. The food too, probably—I wondered about that. What was it she said to you when she was leaving, Kel? As exactly as you can—Numair did tell me but precise wording always matters with gods.”

            Kel thought back. “She kissed my forehead, like a cold burn, Lord Weiryn said ‘Sarra’, sharply, and she replied … Yes, yes, I break no rule. Keladry, my spiral will give virtue of itself, and if a woman prays to me here I will answer. But it is also of the Great Goddess and will summon her in your need if you call. Remember. I thanked them and they both said  I’d ‘deserved my blessings’. Then they went silver and vanished.”

            “And will summon her in your need?Hmm. Have you tried?”

            “Tried what?”

            Alanna clucked impatiently. “Summoning the Goddess in your need.”

            “No. Of course not. I can’t just—”

            “Gah. Why am I not surprised? Neal, any pregnant women except Yuki coming to see you this afternoon?”           

            “No. One tomorrow morning, for more tea.”

            “Then I’d like to borrow this, if I may.” Alanna weighed the spiral, hesitating. “It’s not for me, though. Can you take it to—where’ll we be talking, Kel? Your rooms?”

            “I suppose so.”

            “Is there a fire?”

            “Of course there is. I don’t freeze myself, you know.”

            “Could have fooled me. Anyway, show me the rest of this magic castle of yours.”

            Kel gave Alanna the full treatment especially where defences were concerned, starting with gatehouse and fin-gallery. She mentioned the shots she’d managed with Weiryn’s gift, drawing a surprised whistle, and Merric’s ideas about the distance a mage or siege engine might think safe before concluding with slingwork as part of everyone’s training.

            “I don’t know why all soldiers aren’t trained with slings. You can stash one in a pocket, most battlefields have ready ammunition to hand, and even our worst shots are now better with them than with spears.”

            “Spears are pointy.”

            “Doesn’t matter if a stone’s smooth as a lake if it hits with enough force—and they do. The Scanrans we’ve killed with them … one man had been hit in the face and his skull was caved in. I think even a child with a good arm could take out a tauros and I’m wondering about giants. They’re slow, and you can angle a stone up as easily as sending it flat.”

            Alanna whistled again. “It’s an idea, Kel. There’s the training to figure—but you’ve obviously done that. Copy your rosters for practice sessions and do a report. I’ll make sure the idea’s taken seriously.”

            “Alright. That sounds good.”

            “Merric’s thinking well, too. That point about mages is good. I don’t know about engines. They tried a mangonel at the City of the Gods but a Mithran mage burned it. We’ve seen nothing worse.” Alanna frowned. “You really expect to face a siege?”

            “I know it makes no sense, but I can’t shake the thought. And that prophecy … Apart from the tauroses, the stormwings—wherever they’ve been hiding—haven’t bothered with any Scanrans we’ve killed. I can’t help thinking they’ll only play again over the Greenwoods when they’ve a feast.” Kel brooded, kicking the palisade. “And I know Maggot hasn’t used engines but those killing devices came from somewhere.”

            “Eh? They came from Rathhausak.”

            “The dead souls did. Blayce’s workshop wasn’t equipped to produce blades, wire, or gears.”

            “Huh. Numair said it was all the work of one mage—Blayce’s runes and his … what? smell, I suppose, all the way through.”

            “Maybe, but I don’t think he made scores of cogs and miles of wire himself, nor coated hundreds of giants’ long bones and skulls with metal that wasn’t wrapped and hammered—it was coated on, like paint.”

            “Point. Definite point, Kel. Goddess, that’s a good question. So where were they made?”

            “And by whom?”

            “Yush. I don’t want to think about it now, but that’s a point to make forcefully to Jon and the Council.”

            “I’m more bothered by what someone might be making now. And engines are the least of it. There was skilled designwork in those devices—the blades had tremendous force. It was the domes that were vulnerable. If the dead children had been encased in the midsection, behind thicker metal …”

            “Hush, Kel, they weren’t and you’re giving me indigestion.”

            They completed the circuit and Alanna looked back round the walls. “Formidable, Kel. Vanget and Cavall told me this is the strongest place between Northwatch and Frasrlund, but it’s tougher than Northwatch and more compact than Frasrlund, and neither has the same depth of traps. Your box of mageblast-keys must be enormous.”

            “It’s getting that way. All clearly labelled, though.”

            Alanna cackled again, drawing glances from sentries very conscious of her presence but staring dutifully out. “So I should hope. No good blowing up your moatbridge if you mean to drop rocks on someone.” When they came to the shrines the Lioness’s mood sobered. “Neal told me about that Yamani mage nearly wetting himself when he augmented his sight. Nice statues—you’ve good woodcarvers. And about what he said of you—awash with godlight, eh? Ready to talk, Kel? I get the feeling it’s not going to be pretty.”

            “No.” Kel felt reluctance rise. “I know there’s no point delaying but let’s finish first. There’s still the caves and the children will never forgive me if I don’t take the Lioness by the barracks to meet them.”

            “Alright. Whatever you want, Kel. Up to a point.”

            Hoping she wasn’t too flushed she led on to the caves,  where there was a cheerful fug Alanna greatly approved of, and the passageway to the lookout, already with a third spiral and most of a fourth. Everyone was impressed to meet the Lioness, and the children, when they reached the barracks, held back with big eyes before swarming eagerly forward. After Alanna had extricated herself, grinning, Irnai and the Scanran refugees got kind, quiet words and the young seer a searching stare; then there was no putting it off longer and Kel led Alanna to her quarters, confusion roiling in her as to what she’d thought she could say. Alanna had no doubts, though, settling herself by the fire and pointing imperiously to the opposite chair.

            “Unless you’d rather stand. I hear you prefer reporting that way.”

            “Yes. Probably. Seal the room, would you?”

            Eyebrows rose. “That bad? Alright.” Purple fire flared along walls and door. “Done.” Alanna regarded her with what Kel suspected was compassion and she squirmed inside. “Begin at the beginning, which means the Chamber and these visions it gave you. Never did that to me, thank the Goddess. But it seems to be where you got involved with the gods and that’s what matters here, as Neal tells it.”

            The Chamber Kel could manage and set off through her apparently unusual habit of testing herself against the doors, the addition to her Ordeal, and all that followed. Irnai came into the tale and Alanna sharpened as Kel gave a version of her debrief and its interruptions.

            “Then I passed out.”

            Alanna half-smiled, “Yes, I heard about that from Raoul. And about your wound from Neal.”

            “At length, I bet.”

            “He wasn’t happy when I told him off as well as Baird. And I’ll tell you off too, Kel—I understand your reasoning better than he does, but it’s no good keeping your healer fresh while you’re in real pain.”

            “He was barely recovered from saving three of us at Rathhausak .”

            “He says he had enough if you’d said. But it doesn’t matter now, Kel, and what you did does. Every one of us owes you an unpayable debt for killing Blayce. I’m so proud of you I can’t say.”

            Kel flushed. Alanna’s praise, even more than Wyldon’s, was to her fairy gold that might suddenly vanish. “I was just going after my people.”

            “Not entirely, from what you’ve been saying. You knew Blayce was behind the raid.”

            “I guessed he was but I didn’t know.”

            “Yes, you did—you just couldn’t explain how you knew. Anyway, go on from your report. I need the full story.”

            Kel was easy enough with building New Hope, but speaking of dedications and godsigns was oddly upsetting and she knew her voice was tenser. Alanna was listening intently but whenever she paused waved her on, and Kel guessed she’d heard this tale already, probably from several mouths. Eventually the story wound to the day of the attack.

            “Do you want what I experienced then or what I dream?”

            “They’re different?”

            “The tauros knocked me out. It was just pain and confusion. But when I dream it’s … vivid. All in focus.”

            “Then switch to the dream memories when you get there.”

            The alarm and combat weren’t difficult, nor the sudden, appalling pain in her leg, falling with Peachblossom, and the struggle to free herself, but when she got to the tauros leaping over his withers, where her dream usually began its slow, agonising repeat, her voice dried up. Alanna’s eyes seemed huge, their strange purple intense.

            “I know it’s hard, Kel, but Neal right that managing to say it usually helps afterwards. And exactly what happened matters in interpreting whatever it was the Black God said to you.”

            Kel nodded, swallowing. “It … the tauros, it kicked Peachblossom in the head. So hard. It made its pizzle swing, like a mace. He went still and … my mind, I was just wailing inside. I cut its arm with the glaive but the angle was wrong, I couldn’t get any force in the blow and it slammed the glaive away and kicked me. Knocked off my bascinet. That’s when it all became a blur but in my dream I feel the second kick and then it throws me a few feet and …” Her voice was very flat as she struggled to say it. “I landed on my back. I still had Griffin but it was trapped under me and I couldn’t breathe. The tauros tore off my breastplate and greaves, then my shirt and breeches, and … you know what it did.”

            “Did it bite as well as rape you? They often do.”

            “Yes. My breast. Left.” She forced out the words. “It bit the end off.” Alanna blanched. “I didn’t know at the time, only the pain. Great waves of it. Then more, inside me. I knew what was happening in my head somewhere but I didn’t understand at the time. In the dream, if it gets that far before I wake up, I can feel it much more clearly. I even feel my maidenhood go before the real pain starts.”

            “You were a virgin?” Alanna was surprised. “I thought Cleon …”

            “No, we never did.” Welcoming any other topic Kel got up to put more logs on the fire, poking it so she didn’t have to look at Alanna. “We kissed, when we could, and once almost had each other’s shirts off before we were interrupted. But apart from that time he never even put a hand on my breasts. Even when I wanted him to.” She fed smaller sticks to the blaze, watching it flare. “I thought it was because he was serious about marriage, despite his family, and nobles marry virgins.”

            Alanna snorted. “Not always they don’t.”

            “Well, it’s what I thought. But looking back, I don’t think he ever really loved … no, I don’t know that, but never really wanted me. Wanted me, the way I wanted him. It was the idea of a lady knight he liked, in a storybook way.” Understanding bloomed. “And being with me but never doing anything was a way to save himself for his marriage, as he thought he should, and stop me from, from … I don’t know, sullying myself, so his dream stayed pure.”

            Alanna made a rude noise. “I’m beginning to dislike him a great deal. Selfish young idiot. Still, wasn’t there ever anyone else?”

            “Not really.”

            “And you haven’t … well, obviously you haven’t, though you’re free to. Are you romantic or religious about sex?”

            “I’m not anything about it. I’d just never done it before.”

            “You haven’t now, Kel. That wasn’t sex, and don’t ever think it was.”

            “I know. It doesn’t matter anyway. I realised after Cleon had to get married that I’d probably never have a man.”

            “Eh? What do you mean, Kel, never have a man? Why not? Do you prefer women?”

            “What? Do I … oh, you mean fujojoufu. No. Not that I know.”

            “Then why do you—”

            Kel lost her temper though she managed to control her voice. “Alanna, your nickname is the Lioness—fierce, strong, deadly, yes, but also beautiful. Graceful. My nicknames have been The Cow, The Lump, The Girl, and Mother.” She managed a crooked smile. “Now it’s Protector of the Small, and I’ve skipped straight from maiden to crone.”

            Alanna looked appalled. “But Kel—”

            Kel’s voice got flatter still. “There have been three men I’ve ever thought about that way, Alanna, and I’ve told you about Cleon. The other two never noticed I thought anything of them except as friends, and it was clear as sunlight they both liked a very different sort of woman—with curves and graceful hands and no scars everywhere. I wasn’t, what did you say? romantic or religious about being a virgin. It was frustrating and dull, in lots of ways. I was just a realist. Gods know the only living thing that’s ever lusted for me, unless Cleon did, was that tauros. So that’s that. It’s just one more thing I’ve lost.”

            Alanna took a deep breath. “I hear you, Kel, but I don’t think it’s true in the way you mean and we’ll come back to this. But for now please go on. The tauros raped you. Forgive me, but did it spend?”

            Kel looked back at the fire. “I think so. I had these little burns on my stomach and thighs, as well as being numb inside.” Kel frowned. “Actually I think it spent when I stabbed it.”

            “You stabbed it? What with? Griffin?”

            “Yes. I got it out from under me and just pushed up.”

            “Good for you.”

            “Then”—Kel looked up from the fire—“this is guessing, really. My dream never gets this far, but”—she returned her eyes to the flames—“it’s strange, but I think when I stabbed it, it spent and pulled out of me at the same time. I suppose that’s how I got burns from its seed inside and out. And I don’t know if it was the right thing to do, though I wasn’t exactly thinking, because its barbs … I died of blood loss, I think. When I was sent back there was blood everywhere.”

            Alanna ‘s face was very grim. “Come here a minute, Kel.” Reluctantly Kel stood and faced her. “Closer, so I can touch your belly.” Purple fire played over Kel’s stomach, sinking in, and Alanna’s eyes were distant for a few seconds. “Alright. Sit. Look at me.” Kel obeyed, feeling resentment fill her. “It did spend. Have you had a monthly since?”

            “No. I’m infertile, aren’t I?”

            “I’m sorry, yes. The gods didn’t fix that, apparently. Which … no, tell me what happened after you died—as exactly as you can.”

            “Oh, there’s no problem being exact with that, though I’ve not told anyone the full story. Quenuresh knows most—I talked to her while she was helping with Peachblossom afterwards.”

            “Start at the beginning, Kel. You died. Then what?”

            Kel told her, letting the words the Black God and Hag had spoken flow from her memory at last. Alanna was speechless for a long moment.

            “You saw his face.” Her voice was wondering. “I’ve never heard of anyone doing that. Nor of receiving such forgiveness for sending souls to him. Goddess knows you’ve paid a high price but I could envy you that.”

            Kel didn’t turn her head. “Quenuresh said he hadn’t showed anyone his face for an eon, and the forgiveness thing has happened ‘only thrice since the Godwars’, whenever they were. So I’m number four.”

            “And the only one alive, almost certainly. I understand why you haven’t told anyone that bit. But the Black God said it was a gift of his own giving, yes? And before that the key things were that Shakith said you couldn’t have avoided death, the tauroses were chaos-touched and Mithros and the Goddess wouldn’t permit interference by Uusoae, they were busy elsewhere, and his daughter’s healing would be only of your life. Goddess, that’s odd. Then he showed his face, gave you his blessing, and the Hag showed up with her hyena. What were her words again?”

            Still not looking at Alanna, Kel repeated them.

            “Sakuyo’s a mystery to me but he laughed here and he’s obviously watching as closely as any of them. George says the Hag’s a trickster too, so I guess that makes sense. His Spearness would be Mithros, I suppose. Huh. Good one. And the last thing she said was that you needed teasing? It doesn’t make much sense. Do you know what she meant?”

            “Oh yes. I know exactly what that … what she meant.”

            Alanna cocked an eyebrow. “You sound angry with her, Kel.”

            “Furious. I know I shouldn’t be but … oh curse that Hag. I’ll just show you. It’s easier.” She took off tunic and shirt and unwound her breastband, movements jerky with rage. “There. See? Even the tauros’s bitemarks are preserved but nothing else. It has no feeling at all.”

            “Goddess!” Alanna peered at the grey thing that was shaped like but wasn’t her breast—blunt and lifeless. “It’s numb, you say? May I …?”

            “Go ahead. I won’t feel anything.”

            Dubiously Alanna prodded. “It’s warm. You don’t feel anything?

            “Not directly. If it moves enough to pull the living bit I feel that.”

            “And is—”

            “Yes, the same, where the barbs ripped me. Do you need to see?”

            “Yes. I’m sorry.”

            Wordlessly Kel stripped off the rest of her clothes. Distantly, behind rage, she thought Alanna might be more embarrassed than she was, but her shame was being drowned in fury. Pulling breeches back on and rewrapping her breastband she found her hands shaking and couldn’t tuck in the loose end.

            “Let me.”

            Alanna did it efficiently and Kel found herself spitting words again.

            “That’s the Hag’s tease. Mockery would be a better word. It wasn’t enough not to let me die or to send me back alone.”

            “Alone?”

            “The tauroses killed nine people, not counting me. Did they somehow get magically not chaos-touched when they were killing Wallan and Pevis and Crener and those poor farmers, or raping the other women? My death’s forbidden for some reason but not theirs. That’s why I didn’t say anything about being dead. I was ashamed. I am ashamed. I can hardly look Jarna in the eye.”

            “Goddess, Kel—”

            “It’s not even punishment. If I’d done something to warrant that I’d understand. But I haven’t, that I know. And I think the Black God’s grace was a kind of compensation for what he knew his daughter would do. But he didn’t stop her.”

            “Kel, I don’t believe the Goddess intended this at all. It’s not like anything I’ve ever heard of.”

            “Yes, she did. The night before I …” Embarrassment suddenly returned. “I was … in bed, I was … I touched myself thinking about D— … about a man I … imagined I wanted and it was lonely and … and honourless and I thought maybe I should just have done, and dedicate my virginity as a warrior, a Lady Knight, to the goddess, like those fighting priestesses in Sarain.” Kel could hear bitterness crowding her voice and couldn’t stop it. “Daine told me to be careful what I prayed for but it wasn’t a prayer, only a thought. I was mocking myself, my own stupid needs and wanting someone who doesn’t notice me because no-one wants a cow with a body like a tree-trunk. But they heard me in all my stupidity and shame and they mocked me for real.” Her voice was rising and she couldn’t control it. “I was thinking I should put the energy into service, not mooning about, and I would have, but no, I can’t be trusted to do that even when I’m already so plain I’m of no interest to any man, I have to be made a horror to myself too.”

            Her face was wet, mortification and rage seamlessly one.

            “All I ever wanted was to be a knight so I could help people, and just for that all those people insulted and mocked me, the Girl, the Probationer, the Lump. Joren and Vinson and Garvey and Quinden and all those boys, jeering and tricking and spitting, and now the gods have done it too and I can’t stand it. They want me to do something and it needs this? It’s …it’s …”

            Whooping for breath, aching with rage, she ran out of words and truth as a shaking Alanna grabbed and held her, silently, until she’d stilled, then guided her to her chair. In some part of her mind Kel noted she was again dealing with her high command stripped to her breastband and wondered if she’d ever find anything funny again, with self-mockery such a bitter taste in her mouth.

            “Kel, Goddess knows I can understand why you’d think all that, and I’m sorry I didn’t realise how isolated you’ve been. Well, I did, but thanks to Cavall and that blasted probation nonsense there wasn’t anything I could do. But you’re wrong about the Goddess, I swear. She’d never intend this, or do this.”

            “She already did.”

            “No she didn’t, the Hag did. Now, listen. The Black God said his daughter’s healing was only of your life—and I don’t think she can do any more than that. She’s the only god who can raise the dead—it’s the power she lent Daine in Carthak that got us Bonedancer—and I suspect she was needed here, for you, because of it. But he didn’t say anything about any other god’s healing, and when the Green Lady gave you that warning about calling on the Goddess in need, I’m betting she knew this death was waiting for you, and knew what would happen, and wanted you to call on the Goddess to heal you properly. Only you haven’t because you thought you were meant to stay like this. We can fix that right now.”

            Kel blinked tears, trying to process what Alanna was saying. “Fix what? How?”

            “Fix you, by calling on her, of course. She usually listens to me and we’ve got that spiral.”

            “No.” Kel’s reaction was panic-stricken. “I can’t face the Goddess.”

            “Why ever not?”

            “I … I …” Truth broke through again, the thing all her anger had done its best to hide though it never really hid anything and tears rolled again down her face. “I’m too ashamed. I failed her, failed myself and those poor women. But I’ve been given another chance to do what I most want, to defend them all against whatever it is that’s going to happen, sent back by the Black God himself with such sadness and kindness in his eyes. I can’t demand more.”

            “Kel, that’s nonsense. You didn’t fail anyone.”

            “Yes I did, Alanna. They’re dead and I should be. Protector of the Small? I couldn’t even protect myself.”

            “Horsebuns. We need the Goddess right now. Where’s that spiral?”

            Ignoring Kel’s protests Alanna rose and fetched it, then to Kel’s distant shock grinned. “You might want to put your shirt on first.”

            Shaking, Kel did so, wondering if she could stand another god but knowing she couldn’t stop Alanna and finding some part of her wondering if the Lioness was right, the grey lines in her flesh just a stopgap, not a judgement. But there was no time—Alanna didn’t use much ritual, just held the spiral, took a few dried leaves from her belt pouch and threw them into the fire, and closed her eyes, concentrating. For a moment nothing happened, then a glow filled the room, brightening swiftly to silver and vanished leaving a tall woman in a long dress standing beside Alanna. Kel stared as her stomach churned. I am a lake, I am calm, I am a lake. The mantra didn’t have much effect but the Goddess was looking at Alanna, not at her.

            “My daughter. You did well to call me.” The voice pierced like a blade, with that same belling of hounds running through it, and the face turned to Kel, as remote and serene as it was impossibly close, eyes a gateway to stars. “And you have done well also, my daughter. This suffering was no part of our intent.”

            Kel felt like a little girl again, at her mother’s knee, though the goddess was no taller than she was herself. She hung her head, voice a whisper. “I’m so sorry I failed you.”

            “You did not fail me, daughter, though you have not served yourself so well. Look at me.” The command could not be refused and those eyes swallowed her. “Come now and be healed.”

            The goddess held out her arms and Kel tottered into them, dissolving. Alanna found herself looking away from the anguished noise, tears in her eyes, but mercifully the sound faded in that divine embrace as silver cloaked Kel from head to foot. When Alanna turned back the Goddess was looking at her, face filled with sorrow and something else.

            “I have been in distant lands and she did not call on me. But I shall have words for the Hag. You were right that her power was needed but she chose this manner.”

            Alanna took a deep breath, thinking bitterly that her restoration in Carthak after Ozorne’s fall didn’t seem to have improved the Hag’s manners or temperament. “What is it you need Kel to do, my Lady? Or was it just Uusoae’s interference?”

            “Both. But I cannot speak of the future even to you, daughter. The balance is undecided and much may rest on her. She has chosen well so far, and we would not let remnants of Chaos prevent her.”

            “Kel was … very distressed about the others who were killed.”

            “They are at ease in the Peaceful Realms. Even for this my brother would not have let her return from the death of her body were it not for what Shakith has seen. But having allowed her return he does not grudge her wholeness. I will heal her in her womanhood but I cannot heal her mind, and the damage she has suffered in coming so far is grievous.”

            “I realise, my Lady. It’s not just the rape.”

            “No, though few deaths are worse. It is the hatred she has faced for long, and her reaction to the visions the elemental sent to guide her to the necromancer. The lives she saved seem to her less than the lives she could not. Tell her when she wakes that my brother gives special care to the children the necromancer killed. They play in peace and are annealed of pain and sorrow. And she is free to speak of all she knows.”

            Surprised, Alanna thought furiously. “Of being sent back, my Lady?”

            “All.”

            “I’ll tell her, but I doubt she’ll want to. Few would believe her.”

            “She may have need and we will attest it, if she calls us. Tell her.”

            “I will, my Lady.”

            The silver faded. “It is done. She will wake at dawn.”

            Hastily Alanna stepped forward to take Kel as the goddess released her, sliding an arm around her. A hand rested momently on her head.

            “You have my blessing too, my daughter, as you have always done.”

            Power swirled and Alanna was alone with Kel’s considerable weight resting on her. With a grunt she lifted Kel to her shoulder and made for what must be the bedroom door, blessing military consistency when it was. After laying her on the bed she pulled off boots, set them down, and muttering curses at the Hag managed the rest of Kel’s clothes, thought about a nightshirt, then just manoeuvred her into bed. The flesh she saw for the second time was pink and healthy, breast restored and womanhood unmarked. Alanna smoothed her hair affectionately.

            “Little idiot. Big idiot, actually. The Goddess isn’t like that at all.” She straightened groaning, hands in the small of her back. “How could you think it?”

            But she knew: she hadn’t faced such hatred until she was a knight, she’d always had her Gift and since she’d been a squire the Goddess, and Faithful, and she’d found her body’s grace with Jonathan knowing George was waiting. In those terms Kel had had nothing and Alanna marvelled anew, as when she’d heard about Lalasa Isran’s kidnapping and what Kel had done, and when she’d seen Kel joust and realised how good she was. She’d felt it again this summer when Jon contacted told her Kel was back and confirmed Blayce’s death and the rescue of all—count ’em, all—the kidnapped children, all but a dozen adults, and all surviving liegers of King Maggot himself; whose clanhome, Jon added with grim satisfaction, had been burnt. And now this—gods all over doing things they hadn’t done for millennia and Kel working wonders while believing herself as mocked by gods as she had been by so many fellow Tortallans.

            “You’re still an idiot, but Goddess, you’re amazing.” Stooping Alanna kissed Kel’s brow and went back to the study, adding logs to the fire and putting up the guard before recalling her magic from walls and door and heading out to find some of that excellent food and do some reassuring. As she closed the outer door behind her the next along opened and Tobe’s head stuck out, followed by Neal’s above and Jump’s below, a sparrow perched between his ears. Alanna shook her head.

            “She’ll be fine. The goddess has healed her properly and she’s sleeping. Tobe, go keep her company, and take Jump and Nari, is it? Keep an eye on the fire too. Oh, and I couldn’t get her into a nightshirt so mind how you hug her. Neal, I’m not saying a thing—it’s up to Kel what she chooses to tell anyone, but I promise you she’s better now than the last two gods she met left her.”

            “The last two … Mithros.”

            “No, he’s one she hasn’t met yet. Something to look forward to. Now, take me to food, quickly. I want to try these whatchamacallums, pickles that Yuki makes. Chop chop.”

            Wisely, Neal chopped.

 

* * * * *

 

It was exactly dawn when Kel opened her eyes to find Alanna sitting on the end of her bed, drinking a mug of tea and offering another.

            “She said you’d wake at dawn. The gods’ sense of time isn’t always so precise but I thought it might be this time. Here. Door’s shut and Tobe’s asleep, finally, so you can sit up. How much do you remember?”

            “Everything, I think.” Slowly Kel sat up, sheet and blanket falling away. She looked at her healthy breast and cupped it, rejoicing in sensation. “Is my …”

            “Yes, the rest of you’s fixed as well. Do you want this tea? It’s proper stuff, not a healer’s brew.”

            “Please.” She was very thirsty, hungry too; healings did that and she’d missed dinner. “Thank you, that’s good. And thank you for—”

            “You don’t have to thank me, Kel. You were owed. Are owed. Now, if you’re properly awake, listen a minute. With your Council meeting at mid-morning we don’t have a lot of time but there’s a few things that need saying, starting with the fact that you’re an idiot. I called you one several times last night while I was putting you to bed. I am beginning to understand just how bad a time you’ve had, and I do understand how it felt like mockery, as if the gods had done what Joren did, the same way the tauros echoed that rapist Genlith.”

            Kel hadn’t thought of that at all and blinked surprise.

            “You were dealing with the Hag and she can be plain mean, though you’d no reason to know. But even so you shouldn’t have thought the Goddess had done that. All gods are baffling, I know, but few do things like that. And you let it stay that way when if you’d called on the Goddess—which the Lady told you to do—you’d have been fixed quicker.”

            “Maybe so—”

            “No maybes about it, Kel. And if you’d told me what was afflicting you, even hinted, I’d have told you there and then to use that spiral and call the Goddess.” Alanna wagged a finger. “It’s not talking to the healer, again. I have more sympathy for Neal about your shoulder than I did yesterday. It’s also what you did when you reported to Jon expecting him to send you off to Traitor’s Hill for having disobeyed Cavall’s idiot order, hmm? Thinking you deserve to be punished when the opposite is true? Well, stop it. Natural modesty served you well as a page and squire, very well, but as a commander we need you beating up Scanrans, not yourself. Not that you don’t beat up Scanrans too.”

            Given that she was sitting topless in bed, and bottomless too from the feel of it—the feel of it—Kel wasn’t so sure about modesty, natural or otherwise, but did hear what Alanna was saying; then again, she’d heard Wyldon to the same effect as well. All she really wanted to do was inspect herself and absorb being whole, but Alanna wasn’t done.

            “Now, a couple of other things. The Goddess said she’d healed you in your womanhood, so expect monthlies to start again and get an anti-pregnancy charm.” Alanna held up a hand. “Don’t tell me you’re unlikely to need one. It’s your body and your decision but all that stuff you were saying about being ugly just isn’t true, Kel. You just haven’t met the right person, and I doubt you’ve been trying. But there’s something else as well, because just as all the insults made you feel ugly, and Goddess knows I understand how that works, the adulation you’ll get in Corus will make you feel very differently about yourself. Or it should.”

            “Adulation? Alanna, why in the mortal realms should I—”

            Alanna sighed. “Kel, your report was published, remember—and that doesn’t mean copied by a clerk for the files. It was read out in the main square and when we ride into Corus there’s going to be a young riot. Jon wanted an official welcome but I managed to head him off. Can’t do that to the people, though.”

            Appalled, Kel hunched into her pillows. “I don’t want adulation.”

            “Tough. Shouldn’t be a heroine then—comes with the job. Anyway, everyone knows about Rathhausak and the killing devices. Jon put one on show as soon as he was sure Blayce was dead.” Kel shuddered. “It was a good move. And it’s gone now, I’m assured. But they don’t know about your dying and being sent back.” Again she held up a hand. “Hear me out. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t tell whoever, and I won’t tell anyone before you do, even George or Jon. But I am saying it’s your decision if and whom you do. The Goddess said Tell her also that she is free to speak of all she knows. I said I didn’t think you’d want to and people wouldn’t believe you, but she said She may have need and we will attest it, if she calls on us. So—if you need at some point to say what happened, and anyone scoffs, swear by her and make the circle.”

            Wide-eyed, Kel nodded. “Alright. I can’t imagine why I’d want to tell anyone but I’ll remember.”

            “See you do. For the Goddess to mention it there must be a future where you’ll need to, for some reason. Who knows?”

            Kel mulled it over. “You said she said ‘Tell her also …’. Also what?”

            Alanna’s face softened. “Pure comfort. The children Blayce killed have special treatment from the Black God. They play in peace, and are annealed of their pain and sorrow, she said. And the others the tauroses killed. The Black God was only willing to let you return because of what Shakith has seen, Uusoae’s influence or no, but the others have been comforted. I thought you’d want to let the orphans know, and Jarna. Best do it today. I don’t like the look of the weather and we’ll need to be gone tomorrow.”

            Too grateful to speak Kel nodded and Alanna rose. “Go wash. I’m going to sleep, but have me woken in good time for the meeting please.”

            “Of course. Were you up all night? I’m sor—”

            “Do stop apologising, Kel. And I wasn’t. You were sleeping and I left you to it. Tobe kept the fire going, bless him, until I sent him to bed a candle-mark ago. But I was up late with Neal and Yuki—having had to miss their wedding thanks to Maggot we had catching up to do. I didn’t say anything except the Goddess healed you properly; what you tell them’s up to you. Now I’m going, and you need to be.”

            Left with a sense of bobbing in Alanna’s wake like a cork Kel was able at last to examine and find herself whole. Washing, the simple pleasure of responsive flesh brought tears and she let them flow, but the morning was too good, much too good, to spend snivelling. Dressed and feeling wonderful, if bemused, she looked in on a sleeping Tobe, collected Jump and Nari, and went to find people to give good news. Most at New Hope rose at dawn and neither the orphaned children or Jarna were exceptions. Though the sun was shining the fort remained in the fin’s shadow and the air had a bite, but telling them to dress warm and swinging her arms in a brisk routine while she waited, she led them to the shrines and quietly told them of the Goddess’s reassurances. The tears were collective, with prayers of thanks to the Black God, and when they’d run their course Kel scooted them all off to breakfast.

            Ravenous, she piled her tray with extra bacon and went to sit with Neal and Yuki, tucking in. Both eyed her curiously.

            “You seem better. The Goddess came, Alanna said?”

            “She did. I am. Never better.” Kel applied herself to eating as they exchanged glances, then relented. “I expect I’ll tell you sometime, but not now. It’s too good to be whole again, and I have to prepare for the meeting as I didn’t get anything done last night.”

            “It sounds like you got a great deal done, Kel.” Yuki smiled, relief in her eyes. “Just not for the meeting.”

            Kel cleaned her plate. “I suppose. I wasn’t really doing anything, though. Just talking and being healed.”

            “Exhausting activities both.” Neal’s irony was a refuge, his voice light. “It is good to see you less troubled, Kel.”

            “It’s good to be so.” She reached to squeeze their hands, then stood and on impulse leaned and kissed them both, Neal on the forehead and Yuki on the cheek. “Thank you both, for everything. You’re better friends than I deserve. I must go. See you both at the meeting.”

            Pleased to leave someone else looking as bemused as she felt she bounced to the stables, woke Peachblossom by kissing his muzzle, and spent twenty minutes apologising to her horses for having been moody and spreading cheer with apples. That done she went to headquarters, goosed clerks with warm greetings, and retired to her office to sort out what she wanted from the meeting. There wasn’t much, mostly to make sure everyone knew what should happen in her absence, but with her mind spinning she did think of a few points to mention and soon had a neatly written agenda. She fitted in a check with the gatehouse and a quick round before getting mugs of tea from the messhall and going to wake Alanna with a return favour as a downpayment of gratitude.

            The meeting was both extraordinary and without event. All but Alanna knew one another well by now but were self-consciously pleased to inaugurate New Hope’s Council; then again, there were ten people, three of them women, a basilisk, an ogre, and a very large spidren more or less sitting round a table. Alanna had been distinctly pale when first introduced to Quenuresh at the gatehouse, but the spidren mage’s respectful enquiry about the divine disturbance the previous evening, followed by a warm greeting to Kel and a deal of magely talk, had left Lioness and immortal more interested in one another than wary.

            The routine issues of Brodhelm’s command with Mikal as second, with what he might and might not ask of immortals, and work priorities until winter harvest were all briskly sorted—practice sessions, especially with bows and slings; the gallery and lookout post; children’s education and care; cross-training for adults. Then they turned to contingencies for attacks or emergencies and the only sharp moment came when Merric leaned back and gestured at the window.

            “Surely, Kel, but unless my nose is all wrong snow will be here tonight or tomorrow, and everything’ll seize up until the thaw.”

            “Never think it, Merric.” Kel’s voice was hard and Merric sat straighter. “Tell me, what would you do if you wanted to attack New Hope, and had reports of an unscaleable glacis?”

            “I’m not sure, Kel. I’d hate to have to assault this place.”

            “Think again.”

            There was a pause before Brodhelm spoke. “Treason. Gates fall to treachery way more often than assault.”

            “Exactly.” Kel looked Merric in the eye, then ran round everyone. “Don’t relax because it snows. Merric, it’s Midwinter Eve, nightwatch, snowing like crazy, and a party of obviously poor Scanrans shows up. They’re freezing and there are children, at least one evidently injured. ‘Please.’ they say, ‘we ask for refuge. We’ve fled Maggot’s cruel oppression. Let us in.’ What do you do?”

            Merric looked at her. “Stay suspicious, obviously.”

            “Right. No-one, no-one you don’t know personally comes in without the full gate routine, and if you do know them but they’ve never been here before you do the routine anyway. All of it, every time. The slightest hesitation or doubt—anything at all—and you treble the questions. Think about what’s appropriate—not just ‘do you mean harm?’ but where were you born, where have you come from, are you loyal to Maggur, are you under orders, have you come because anyone asked you to, or told you to, do you have any mission here? The works.”

            “Kel, half those are the same thing.” Merric frowned. “If someone isn’t loyal to Maggur they wouldn’t be coming here on a mission for him.”

            “Not true, Sir Merric,” Zerhalm was blunt, Scanran accent thick. “Maggur Reidarsson deals in hostages and terror. It is well within his cunning to hold a wife or child and send the husband here. Or to hold husband and wife and send the child.”

            “Just so.” Kel looked round. “If any Scanrans show up send for Zerhalm at once—he can question them in ways we can’t. Similarly, if Tortallan commoners show up send for Fanche and Saefas, or if immortals show up—which I’m really not expecting but that’s when it happens—send for our residents.”

            “And what do we do if someone is suspicious?”

            “Good question. If they’re armed, fight. If it’s civilians or military wounded, well, I’ve been thinking. We don’t have a secure cell because we’ve never needed one, but that can change. Var’istaan, Kuriaju, can you carve out a small chamber, no larger than it need be, with exactly one door? Thank you. Brodhelm, the smiths can see to that door. I want new locks for the gates, too—those up-and-down ones as well as crossbars.”

            “Good idea.” Brodhelm made a note.

            “If anyone is really problematical ask Quenuresh to wrap them up tighter than any fly and spoonfeed them. She can call the griffins if there’s any uncertainty about anyone lying.” Kel checked her agenda. “Brodhelm, Mikal, Merric, Uinse, when it snows be sure Peachblossom’s loose and double your inspections of the duty watch—there’s nothing like long cold winter nights to make sentries silly. Keep the roadway clear as far as the moatbridge too—it’s no good having a killing field if you can’t see your traps. And one more thing.” She leaned back herself. “Uinse, what would you do if you wanted to weaken us as much as you could?”

            The former convict thought deeply. “Anything I could. Armies can’t move in snow, but small bands can. I’d scout all I could while I thought we were dozing, salt winter crops, trigger rockfalls if I knew about them, and take killing shots from deep cover at anyone who came out.”

            “So would I.” Kel looked in turn at Brodhelm, Mikal, and Merric, the last her real worry; knight or no, even after Haven Merric didn’t quite believe the worst could occur, regardless of precautions and weather. He’d never died of it. “Don’t think it might happen—assume it will, every day, every night. Check fields regularly for tracks. Quenuresh, could you ask the griffins to keep careful watch also whenever they fly? If it’s moving on two legs Brodhelm needs to know. I’ll ask the centaurs, and the sparrows can patrol as well. Oh, and the griffins and centaurs are welcome to food or shelter if they want it.”

            Quenuresh smiled widely. “I doubt either will but they’ll be pleased you think to offer.”

            “As they will. What matters is that everyone is vigilant, always. I don’t expect an army but I do expect something, some try for advantage or a killing. And please be careful yourselves. Everyone here is a prime target for anyone who wants to weaken us.”

            Zerhalm leaned forward. “You also, Lady Kel. An agent of Maggur’s need not come to New Hope to weaken us if you are in Corus.”

            “True. I doubt he’s thinking quite that way, but I shall be taking care, every day, I promise.”

            The meeting broke up, various participants seeking more personal discussions, and after lunch Kel, Brodhelm, and a shivering Alanna rode out with two squads to find the centaurs. Besides visits to trade and occasional sight of them with their horses in the southern valley Kel had seen little of the immortals, but when she blew the civil summons Whitelist and his mates soon trotted out of the woods. Presenting stone bowls and smoked meat Kel made introductions and requests, and after some polite, mutually satisfactory exchanges everyone trotted away again satisfied. By the time they were back at New Hope the bitter cold had vanished as even grey cloud began to set in.

            “We’ll be riding in snow tomorrow, Kel.” Alanna shivered despite the rise in temperature. “How many are we?”

            Kel counted in her head. Seaver, Neal, and Yuki wouldn’t be there, but besides Alanna there would be herself with Tobe, who had never seen Corus and preferred the idea of Midwinter celebrations at court to whatever New Hope did; Irnai, whose presence had been requested; and three men from Brodhelm’s and Uinse’s companies whom she’d granted leave to attend memorials and a wedding. Jump and the sparrows would keep Peachblossom and Hoshi company.

            “Seven, two children. Plus two squads as far as Bearsford.”

            “We’d best be off at the crack then, if we’ll have twenty-nine to find rooms for in Bearsford. Even for you I’m not camping in snow—and the Drunken Carter does excellent hotpot. The innkeep was an army bowyer before he retired to marry the last one’s daughter.”

            Laughing, Kel followed her childhood heroine and friend to the messhall.

Chapter Text

Part III – Midwinter

December 461 – February 462 HE

  


 

 

Chapter Nine — Kinship

5–16 December

 

To Kel’s eyes Corus was at once familiar and strange. Buildings were where they ought to be but the City wall and Palace enclosure seemed less impressive than she remembered. After a day she decided it was because her image had been made when she was a newcome page to whom everything was oversized, and fixed by her fear of heights and having to run the allering of the Palace wall. When she mentioned it the Lioness agreed, waggling a hand, but retorted it wasn’t Corus seeming smaller but Kel being bigger, and that as the world wouldn’t make more room for her on that account until she cleared some for herself she was bound to feel cramped. Kel took this under advisement, protesting there was quite enough of her already, but suspected Alanna was right.

            Their journey had been pleasant enough. Alder had proven as good for a journey as a joust, with an easy gait, and they had made good time. The fun of watching Tobe and Irnai see new landscapes, continuing their practical educations and drawing in soldiers travelling with them, kept conversation animated, and the children’s excited reactions to Corus and the wide Olorun, the Palace rising above the city and the expanse of the Royal Forest beyond were deeply satisfying to Kel—they ought to know what was at the heart of the realm. Her own bemused happiness continued, simple pleasure in restored well being remaining undiminished. Even resumption of her monthlies with accompanying aches and inconvenience proved welcome.

            What had not been enjoyable at all, in Kel’s opinion—Alanna and Tobe begged to differ—was entry into the city. Mindful of Alanna’s prediction about her probable reception Kel had done her level best to persuade everyone not to stop only ten miles north of the last rise before the city and ride on in winter dark and persistent drizzle, hoping an arrival closer to midnight than dinnertime would spare her whatever fuss was waiting. But Alanna had been unmoved, wanting food and warmth, with the inevitable result next day that after parting with the soldiers, all heading east, they reached the gates in late morning. The exaggerated respect of watchmen on the Kingsbridge when they identified the arrivals had been bad enough, but as they rode up Palace Way Kel heard the Chamber’s absurd tag being shouted. By the time they reached the Daymarket the crowd had thickened, and cheering started with cries of ‘Protector’ and ‘Mindelan’. Kel put her Yamani mask firmly in place until Alanna told her to smile; she thought she must look like a grinning idiot, and regarded the slow miles until they escaped into the Palace district as an ordeal she could have done without.

            She had waved, mouthing platitudes amid noise while knowing she’d gone as red as a beet. It all seemed absurd, unconnected with anything that had driven her into Scanra, but she knew plenty of soldiers who’d faced killing devices and too often died on their blades had been from Corus. Even so, the relative calm of the Palace enclosure had never been so welcome, and after they’d stabled their horses she automatically set off with relief for her old rooms only to be hauled back by Alanna and steered instead not even to the knight’s wing but to a set of rooms in the commanders’ quadrant, an area new to her. Startlement ebbed when she realised Tobe and Irnai were billeted with her and had cotbeds in a side-chamber, but even more than the crowds the rooms brought home to her how her status had risen; that her command was not limited to New Hope. Sprawling as the Palace might be rooms were at a premium, and a set like these, with a privy, side-chamber, and sitting room, were gold, an unarguable sign of rank.

            Practicalities rescued her from shock and she spent an hour making sure Tobe and Irnai knew the basic layout and places that mattered, including the day-kitchen where they snagged turnovers for lunch. Then she took them to see the pages’ and squires’ wing where she’d spent so long. The pages were out with Lord Padraig in the Royal Forest, so she was spared embarrassments but missed her nephew Lachran. She and the children did get strange looks from squires who happened to see them, and though Kel had intended to go on to the Own’s barracks and stables, where Tobe would appreciate the horseflesh and someone might have news of Dom, she headed instead up to the teachers’ floor hoping to find Daine. It turned out the Wildmage wasn’t back yet from the north but Kitten welcomed them volubly and dragged Numair from his books. Greeting Irnai gravely, he offered her meetings with other seers resident at the Palace, if she’d like, while Kel and a charmed Tobe were enthusiastically bombarded by Kitten with the news that her grandsire had promised to visit her during the celebrations to see how she fared and teach her new dragonspells. The opal dragon Kawit was already at the Palace and he wanted to have a long talk with her too.

            “There’s another dragon here?”

            There is. Kitten’s mindvoice sounded very smug.

            “And your grandsire is Diamondflame? The eighty-foot one?”

            Eighty-five, not counting his tail. Dragons don’t have kings but he is the most important except for Rainbow Windheart and the strongest magically. He says I will be very strong too because I have started young and had many experiences in the mortal realms. I saw him in the Dragonlands five years ago but he has not been here since he brought Mama and me back from the Divine Realms after she killed Ozorne.

            Who Rainbow Windheart might be Kel wasn’t sure but a memory clicked in her mind. “Was that when you gave Lord Mithros a scolding?”

            Yes, but he didn’t listen. Grandsire says gods usually don’t and that is one reason they are so annoying.

            Kel hadn’t thought of gods that way but decided Diamondflame sounded a very sensible dragon. “Well, if you meet the Graveyard Hag, please scold her for me. Bite her too, if you get a chance.”

            She is strange even for a god. I met her in Carthak and she upset Mama a great deal, so I will certainly bite her if I get the chance. What has she done to annoy you?

            “She played a trick on me I didn’t like at all. It was nasty and personal, so I hope you do get the chance. But please don’t ever bite the Goddess or the Black God—they’ve both been very nice to me.”

            Alright. You have been meeting a lot of gods, Kel. I saw a great many at their Court with Mama but I haven’t met any since except Mama’s parents. Grandsire says dragons annoy them as much as they annoy us, but that is silly. Most dragons are nice.

            “If they’re like you they must be, and I’m happy you’re so happy about seeing your grandsire.” Whether anyone else would be pleased by a visiting eighty-five-foot dragon Kel doubted, but looked forward to the event. “I need to see my parents, too, and take Irnai to meet them.”

            They will be pleased to see you, as I am. How long are you staying?

            “I’m not sure, but until after the celebrations at least. Then it depends on the weather. I’ll see you again when your Mama gets back if not before. And if you get bored I’m sure Tobe and Irnai would be glad of a visit. Do you know where my new rooms are?”

            Kitten didn’t so Kel explained, and after quietly telling Numair that the Goddess had visited New Hope and there were fragments of information he could get from Alanna, she took Tobe and Irnai to bathe and change before going to her parents’ townhouse. Determined to avoid any repeat of the fuss in the city she put her status to use and nabbed a closed carriage from the palace yard, which pleased both children. Her parents’ house-steward Hiroaki was surprised but pleased to see her, offering dignified congratulations in a reserved Yamani way she could deal with, and they made their way to the sitting room her parents used.

            Both were there, delighted to see her and Tobe and meet Irnai again, but so was Conal and even while her parents were greeting Irnai Kel knew that however popular her adventures might have made her with the citizens of Corus it had only deepened his open dislike. In the strange way of bullies he’d never forgiven her for being his victim in childhood, nor for the threats to disown him in which her father had exploded after the tower episode; perhaps in consequence he’d come to regard their parents as too liberal, and as a knight had drifted towards conservatives who loudly condemned the ‘irresponsible and sacrilegious decision’ to allow a girl page. His first words were an aggressive sneer.

            “So, little sister, you think your popularity and pet status entitles you to disrespect nobles from the Book of Silver, do you? You’d better not try such a thing in my presence.”

            Kel blinked, realising he must be referring to Tirrsmont, and though dismayed to discover that story in circulation anger flared with memory of the man’s disregarded responsibilities. Her voice came out clipped.

            “If you mean Tirrsmont, Conal, I suggest you discover how General Vanget refers to him before you decide he’s a paragon of virtue. Unlike him I said nothing untrue or obscene, and he was far outside his rights.”

            Her tone brought her mother’s head round but he didn’t notice.

            “You insulted and threatened him on his own lands and you’ll not get away with it.”

            “They’re not his, Conal, and never will be. He disgraces his title.”

            “You’re the disgrace, you and this Scanran bastard.”

            Red faced he left, ignoring the children save for a look of contempt that brought concern to Tobe’s face, and Kel cursed him viciously in her mind before telling her son he was in a bad mood and not to fret. Obviously cross, her mother started to apologise to Tobe but Kel hushed her.

            “It doesn’t matter, mama. He’s always been a grouch.”

            “It’s worse than that, Kel, and you know it. He has no civility or judgement these days. I’m really quite tired of the boy.”

            For her mother those were strong words and Kel wondered what Conal had been saying or doing to warrant them, but friendlier family chat was more enticing. A letter from Patricine in the Islands had arrived the previous week, and after news of Anders, Inness, and her sisters—Oranie and Adelia would shortly be arriving with husbands and children but pregnant Demadria was staying with her new husband—there was the foiled attack on Mindelan to hash over.

            “Are the navy ships still there?”

            Her father nodded. “The damaged one is being repaired but another arrived as cover. Wolfship season’s over though, thank Mithros.”

            “Good. I have a horrible feeling it was a revenge attack. I’m sorry.”

            “Oh nonsense, Kel. Even if we were targeted you’ve no call to apologise.” Her mother searched her face. “But what about you? Your letters said nothing but there was a rumour you’d been hurt again. The King said it was just a close call but wouldn’t say what happened.”

            The invitation was obvious and Kel had reluctantly decided honesty required her to tell her mother the truth, but hoped to tell the story only once and had warned Tobe and Irnai—who knew how badly she’d been affected—she’d be deflecting enquiries.

            “Not now, Mama. It’s complicated and it was rough for a while, but I promise you I’m well. Very well, in fact. Are you training in the mornings with Shinko and the Queen?”

            Accepting her words, though obviously concerned, Ilane nodded. “Whenever I can. Will you join us tomorrow?”

            “Yes. If Shinko and the Queen have time after we might talk then.”

            “Alright. Now, about those glaives you wanted …”

            An hour passed in chatter and Kel was delighted to see Tobe relaxing, though wide-eyed at the size of the house and the more exotic Yamani items among her parents’ décor. Irnai was more self-contained but obviously happy too, interested in lifestyles new to her. Dragging herself reluctantly away Kel took them to Lalasa’s dress shop, for the pleasure of seeing her friend and the serious business of tailoring. Her dresses damaged at Haven had never recovered and while she hoped to get away with attending only the Queen’s and King’s balls there was no escaping those; she also wanted a dress to celebrate her healing, and was determined Tobe and Irnai would have some finery.

            As soon as Lalasa saw them she excused herself from a hectoring woman whom no skill in needlework would ever make look other than comfortably plump but whose affront seemed almost to become pleasure when she realised with squeaking excitement she’d been abandoned for the Protector of the Small herself. Ignoring her, Lalasa took them to a private room and after shutting the door hugged Kel fiercely.

            “Oh, my Lady, it’s so good to see you. I nearly burst when they proclaimed your report in the Daymarket. And business has been non-stop ever since.”

            “It’s your skills that do that Lalasa, and it’s good to see you too. Thank you for that wonderful kimono as well—it’s lovely, and it’s been a boon. But let me introduce you to Tobe, my son, and to Irnai.”

            Lalasa knew about her adoption of Tobe and recognised Irnai’s name from Kel’s report, eyes widening before natural kindness took over and she welcomed the girl. They chatted, Kel learning with a first real satisfaction in her new status that besides swelling Lalasa’s business with a range of customers from circles that hadn’t previously patronised her, the self-defence classes for women had also swollen in size and number since the report had made Kel famous.

            “Most people knew you’d taught me, of course—I tell every new group about that—but when I started out some lower-city men were very rude about women fighting, and about you, my Lady. Not now, though—they’re proud of a connection. I’ve four women teaching classes, including a Dog from the Jane Street Kennel, and it’s put a spring in all our steps, that you did what all the top knights and mages couldn’t.”

            Kel still wanted to be flustered by such inordinate praise but her genuine gladness at the increase in the number of women who could reasonably hope to defend themselves against a predator like Vinson made it easier to accept. She did steer conversation as swiftly as possible to New Hope, letting the children describe it and the visit of the Wildmage’s parents. Lalasa just smiled at their account of the glacis and caves, not visualising what they meant in physical terms, but the tale of the gods’ sounds behind the chimes had her making the circle on her chest, and when she heard that when Lord Weiryn and the Green Lady had manifested Kel had asked them to dinner and they had danced she was for once rendered speechless, staring consternation.

            “You … you invited them to dinner, my Lady?”

            Kel smiled ruefully. “I did, Lalasa. They wanted to see their daughter as well as bless their shrines so it was only polite. And they were very kind though Lord Weiryn’s antlers are a bit disconcerting.” Lalasa didn’t look convinced simple politeness required divine dining, nor sure what to make of anyone having antlers, but with a surge of affection and a sense of mischief she hadn’t felt for a long time and rejoiced to feel again Kel leaned forward confidentially.

            “I’ll tell you what was much more surprising, Lalasa—I danced with Lord Wyldon!”

            Lalasa’s hands flew to her mouth. “You didn’t!”

            “”Oh yes I did. He asked and I could hardly refuse. He’s mellowed more than you’d think possible. He’s a good dancer too.”

            “My Lady!”

            Lalasa’s real amusement at the idea of stiffly proper Wyldon doing such a thing and having light feet got her over her astonishment at Kel’s consorting with gods and they turned to business. Kel explained with apologies and regret what had happened to her wardrobe when Haven burned and her need for a dress to wear to balls as well some further replacements in due course.

            “But I also want things for the children, Lalasa. A proper Mindelan tunic and good breeches for Tobe, and something lovely for Irnai. I don’t think she’s ever had new clothes or anything fine.” She ruffled the girl’s hair and was rewarded with a smile. “I know it’s a lot in a short time but they’ll be coming to the balls with me as well, so I was hoping you could manage. I’d like some sturdy everyday outfits for them too, but that’s not so urgent.”

            “It’s no problem, my Lady. Lady Oranie told me you’d be here and I know how hard you are on clothes, so I’ve things set aside. And the children’s wear is easier anyway. Let me measure you all.”

            She bustled for a moment with the knotted strings of her trade, making both children giggle by ending with careful measurement of noses, and took them off to a marvellous storeroom to discuss fabrics and details. Familiar with Kel’s taste for simpler wear than court fashion dictated she had cunning suggestions; they settled on a design Kel had never seen with a very high waist and a long skirt. The neckline would conceal the scar from Stenmun’s axe, the fall of the skirt meant she didn’t have to worry about her unfashionable figure, and the high-cinched waist worked far better with her small, widely spaced breasts than the low-cut, exposing necklines court women favoured and Kel had always thought more revealing than was polite. She didn’t believe Lalasa’s satisfied prediction that her appearance would make it the new fashion, though an odd look came into Irnai’s eyes as she heard the words, but if the style was experimental Kel didn’t mind—it was modest, it became her, and the worst anyone could say was that it was unfashionable which bothered her not one whit. The colour would be a gorgeous deep blue Tobe wanted for his own tunic, and at Kel’s insistence embroidery would be limited to the hem and one Mindelan owl over her crossed glaives with distaff border.

            Tobe’s tunic would have owl and glaives without the border, and Lalasa found a lighter blue fabric for breeches. Irnai was more of a conundrum, so taken with the rich colours and fabrics she couldn’t say which she liked most. She was clear she didn’t want anything she couldn’t move freely in, and they decided on fine dark brown wool and a simple cut, Lalasa promising to have the dress embroidered with borders of flame in bright reds and yellows. Kel was reminded of a promise too long forgotten and asked for some red yarn for a new doll for Meech, explaining about the slow but so important balding of the old one.

            “Oh, my Lady.” Lalasa’s face softened. “What a brave lad. And only five, fancy! I’m sure I couldn’t have thought to do such a thing at that age. I know a woman in Festive Lane who makes dolls like that. She could do one for you with the right hair easily, if you’d like.”

            Kel did like, and they proceeded briskly to ordinary garments for herself and the children before returning to the private room for their usual wrangle about payment. Kel conceded on her dress, as she’d known she’d have to, but managed to get Lalasa to agree the cost of materials for the children, and a portion of the labour, would be set against Kel’s tithe from the shop’s earnings. She tried again, as hard as she could, to persuade Lalasa that profits were rightfully hers and she shouldn’t give anything to Kel—a case pressed all the harder because business was booming and the size of the payments a real embarrassment—but on the principle of the thing Lalasa was absolute.

            “If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have shop or profit, my Lady, and I’m still your maid. I always set my proper wage against the accounts.” She folded her arms defiantly. “I’ve more money already than I ever expected and I’ll not stint a penny of what’s yours by right and custom.”

            Kel hadn’t realised she was still—on paper—paying Lalasa a wage but stifled protest; she’d have to do some research before confronting that trick of Lalasa’s accounting. She did, however, see a different counter.

            “When’s the last time I gave you a raise? I thought so. Your wage should have gone up three or four times by now, by at least half the original sum every time. You figure that in next time you do accounts, and backdate everything—I won’t stint a penny of what’s yours either.”

            Humour and admiration sparked in Lalasa’s eyes. “Alright, my Lady. That’s proper. And there’s something else I was going to ask you. That woman in Festive Lane, and others I know, do good work and could do more if they could get themselves proper premises and stock and hire help. They can hardly get the time of day from the goldsmiths and can’t afford the rates nimmers down here charge, but don’t want charity. I lent one woman something to get herself started by hiring her as my undermaid and now she tithes to me. But you could do more and I know most of what I’ve tithed to you is just sitting in that goldsmith’s vault.”

            This idea Kel liked far more and promised to see the goldsmith to authorise Lalasa to withdraw whatever was needed. If these women had a tenth of Lalasa’s skills it promised to make Kel richer in the long run but what pleased her was allowing talented women held back by nothing more than Tortall’s snobbish conservatism to escape the poverty of so much of the lower city.

            The spark returned to Lalasa’s eye. “I thought you’d say that. Perhaps we’ll call ourselves the Protector’s Maids.”

            “You dare!”

            Lalasa grinned and her face softened into a broader smile as a tap on the door was followed by a man’s head poked through the opening.

            “Lal, are you—oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were busy.”

            “That’s alright, Tom, we’re about done, I think. Come in, please. I’d like to present you to my Lady. This is Tomas Weaver, my Lady. We met down at the fabrics warehouse at the dock and we’re good friends.”

            The man was short, slim, and cheerful, open face breaking into a smile as Lalasa spoke. “We’re courtin’, Lal, not just good friends, I hope. You’d be Lady Knight Keladry, then. I’m honoured to meet you—and thank you for all you’ve done for Lal. She’s told me a lot about you.”

            He drew himself up to bow but Kel forestalled him, offering a hand he took with pleased surprise. His own was strong and clean, with a weaver’s callouses, and though Kel was taken aback by his words, knowing Lalasa’s history and lingering aversion to male company, she could see from her eyes that Tomas Weaver had been the man to persuade her otherwise. His obvious affection and easy kindness to the children, inviting them to call him Tom, put him further in her good books. He was as enthusiastic as Lalasa about the scheme, one of the women being a lacemaker he’d known since childhood, and a plan was hatched for Kel to meet some over the festival. By the time they’d had tea and biscuits, the light was fading and Kel reluctantly rose. Tobe bounced out with Tom, but as the women followed Irnai laid a hand softly on Lalasa’s arm.

            “The god says if you choose him he will be always true and gentle.”

            Startled, Kel and Lalasa looked down at the seer smiling up at them.

            “Shakith?” Kel spoke for Lalasa’s benefit.

            “Yes.  I asked how you’d look in your dress and she showed me, just as Tom came in, then added what I said. He’s nice.”

            She skipped out after Tom and Tobe.

            “She’s for true, my Lady?”

            “She is, Lalasa. Master Numair has no doubt she’s one of Shakith’s Chosen and her voice sounded when Irnai dedicated her shrine at New Hope—like a hawk in the distance. She sort of lit up for a moment too.”

            “Oh. And Tom’s …” Her face was transformed. “I do trust him, my Lady, he’s been nothing but kind. But I couldn’t help remembering how my … how men can change with the drink in them. And now the goddess herself reassures me. Me.”           

            “Are you thinking to accept his proposal, then?”

            “I think I would have anyway but to be sure I’m not being a fool …”

            “Well, I hope you’ll be very happy. I’m delighted for you.”

            She gave Lalasa a hug as warmly returned and they followed the children. Not wanting to trouble with formalities after a long day Kel ignored the formal dinner sitting and took them to the kitchens that served the Own. Few she knew well were present, Raoul and Third Company having remained at Steadfast, but there were men of the First and Second she recognised who welcomed them to a plain but satisfying plat, and excellent winter-apple pie. They soon found they got better answers about Rathhausak and events at New Hope from Tobe and Irnai, so there was more chatter than Kel was comfortable with but she steeled herself. They also found a corporal from Second she didn’t know who was from Masbolle and told her that though so far as he knew no-one had heard directly from Sergeant Domitan, he gathered the injured veteran was back at home, helping his brother with the estates but afflicted with a bad limp and by all appearances a deal of pain. Wincing, Kel thanked him and promised herself she’d write to Dom again as soon as she’d got the children to bed. It wasn’t easy when she came to it, her recent experiences precluding frankness, but eventually she had a version that seemed informative and cheerful, mentioning Quenuresh and with a double exclamation-mark the litany of nicknames for the tauros skulls. She concluded with a renewed invitation to come to New Hope in spring, and went to bed in good heart.

 

* * * * *

 

When she made her way to the private practice courts at dawn, glaive in hand in case no practice weapon was available, Kel was astonished to find not only the Queen, Shinko, her mother, and a number of the Queen’s Ladies, but also Lord Padraig. The Training Master had always been a swordsman by choice, preferring his blade to any polearm, and was uncomfortable with a glaive, hands slightly misplaced and stance off, leaving his warm-up pattern dance unbalanced. As there was a practice weapon waiting for her, once Kel had greeted everyone, giving Cricket a hug, she made sure he could see her as she weighed it more judiciously than she needed and carefully positioned her hands before beginning her warm-up with the slow, extended sweeps that were impossible unless your balance with the weapon was perfect. Their slowness allowed her to watch in peripheral vision as he read the lesson and adjusted his grip, at once finding a smoother rhythm. After two slow dances she recentred and started a more complex set, accelerating until her glaive was a blur and the comfortable heat of readiness filled her, sweat filming her face. When she came to a precise halt, glaive poised for the broom-sweeps-clean, there was applause and Lord Padraig came forward smiling to offer a hand she took with renewed surprise.

            “Thank you, Lady Knight. That was a most tactful lesson before your impressive display. I felt the difference at once—like staffwork, really. I should have guessed for myself what I was doing wrong.”

            She smiled as she mopped face and hands. “I had it beaten into me for years, my Lord, by old Naruko at the Imperial Palace.”

            “That’s what I wanted to ask about, actually. All three girls starting this year specifically asked about glaive training, with their parents’ support, and I saw a fine display, like yours just now, from one of the Yamani delegation who came for the Princess’s wedding, so I know what a good weapon it can be. It’s interesting—staff, stabbing spear, and sword all in one, but unlike any of them. The problem is we don’t have anyone who can instruct. The King has written to the Emperor requesting teachers to train up our own but it’ll be spring before they’re here. We do have practice weapons, though few live ones yet, so I wondered if you might introduce the pages to the basics in the next few days, and make sure they’re started right.”

            Extremely pleased with flexibility in thinking she hadn’t expected—and for which he’d never been known—Kel agreed at once and they arranged for her to come to the pages’ practice courts the following afternoon. Then sparring began, partners regularly swapping so Kel found herself paired successively with Uline, who grinned widely and offered congratulations between blows, a Queen’s Lady she didn’t know whose defence was ragged, and Thayet before finishing with her mother, by far the best match for her but without Kel’s strength or reach. Time flew as practice absorbed attention and she was sorry when Thayet called a halt, groaning and arching her back.

            “I’m getting old. Practice never used to feel like this.”

            “Nonsense, Thayet. I can give you fifteen years. You just ate too much at that shindig with the ambassadors last night.”

            Thayet laughed. “Guilty as charged, Ilane. The food was excellent and why you didn’t stuff yourself too I can’t imagine. Keladry, your mother said you wanted a word with Shinko and me so I’ve laid on breakfast in my rooms, if that’s alright.”

            Kel walked with her mother behind the royals, telling her Lalasa was being courted and relaying news about clothing and the plan to finance women who needed only a start to get businesses up and running. Thayet and Shinko had been chatting about court gossip and switched attention to the conversation behind them when they caught its gist, continuing to quiz Kel over the table. Though distracted by some astonishingly flaky crescent-rolls, as light as she’d ever tasted and entirely delicious, Kel was happy to answer, adding information about Lalasa’s self-defence classes entering a second generation, with the best of her first pupils acting as instructors to cope with demand. Thayet theatrically struck her forehead.

            “Keladry, that’s superb, and I’m an idiot. After the Chamber exposed that disgusting Vinson and I discovered how the Palace maids were being harassed I came down on the senior housekeepers like a ton of bricks, so I hope things are better but I’m not kidding myself I solved the problem. Jon and I subsidise the Temple of the Goddess to run patrols in the lower city and do what they can to aid and deter, but that’s only a drop in the ocean. Teaching women to defend themselves, and mark any attacker, that’s a real step.”

            Kel nodded. “Now there are more instructors available why don’t you require all female Palace staff to attend classes? They’d have to go in rotation but I’m sure Lalasa would be glad to help and a royal imprimatur would bring more lower-city women in too.”

            Thayet hit her forehead again. “Twice an idiot—that’s a deal, Kel.”

            Remembering her curiosity, Kel asked what had happened to Vinson at his trial, and Thayet scowled.

            “He was found guilty right enough—with bruises and cuts still appearing randomly all over him and his confession on impeccable record no-one was defending him. Turomot sentenced him to five years in the mines as well as fining Genlith very heavily for trying to bribe him, so that was right too. And he gave the fine to the Temple of the Goddess, the upright old coot. But while Vinson was being transported north the party was attacked. Three guards and two convicts were killed, and he was taken—or freed. Jon and I are sure Genlith or Stone Mountain hired it done but we can’t prove anything and he’s not been seen since.”

            “Oh.” Disturbed Kel nevertheless took the opportunity. “That’s ill news. And it connects with what I wanted to tell you all. Well, not wanted, but feel I should. Is this safe from eavesdroppers? It’s really not for anyone else’s ears.”

            “It can be. A moment.” Thayet disappeared into an adjoining room, returning with an elaborately set ruby on a golden chain fastened round her neck. “It’s spelled to mask conversation from more than a few feet away—a present from Kaddar that’s proved very useful.”

            Kel imagined it had. “Thank you.” She took a breath and looked at her mother. “The thing is … well, I met the Goddess recently, through Alanna, and she told Alanna I might need to tell someone about this—publicly, I mean—and if I swore it by gods’ oath she’d make sure it was upheld. I can’t imagine why I’d want to tell anyone at all, but Alanna didn’t think she’d spoken idly and I wouldn’t for the world have any of you learn this unexpectedly or by report. So I have to make sure you all know but please don’t tell anyone else unless it happens, especially Papa.”

            Ilane’s Yamani mask in place; so was Cricket’s while Thayet was frowning at mention of the Goddess.

            “Alright, Kel. I have a feeling I’m not going to like this one bit, but that’s reasonable. What is it?”

            Kel decided shock tactics were best. “Back in September, not long after you left New Hope, we were attacked—a mage and seven tauroses went after an outlying group cutting hay down the valley and killed both guards and five of the six farmers. I wasn’t far away with two guards and between us we killed the mage and six tauroses, but my guards were down—one dead, the other out cold—and there was the seventh tauros. It unhorsed me, and, well, you know what tauroses do. But then, and I swear this is true—I died.” It sounded ridiculous even to her and Ilane’s eyes were huge. She hurried on. “I met the Black God and he was very kind to me before his daughter healed me and sent me back, because the tauroses had been touched by Uusoae during the Immortals War and Lord Mithros and the Great Goddess wouldn’t allow her interference to have any effects they didn’t like.” She looked at Thayet’s shocked face. “Daine said that made sense, and I believe the King knows the story so I hope you do too.”

            The Queen nodded, tight-lipped. “You died, Kel? From the tauros?”

            “I’m afraid so. And was sent back, very much alive again. Peachblossom was mortally hurt as well, hind leg in smithereens, but Daine managed to heal him though he’s had to retire as a warhorse. And there’s one more thing, because the Hag’s healing wasn’t, um, very satisfactory and that’s why Alanna called the Goddess who did heal me properly, um, everywhere and I promise you I’m fine now. I swear I am.”

            She made the gods’ circle as she spoke and chimes sounded softly with the Goddess’s hounds behind. All her listeners started, Shinko paling even further and Thayet looking around in wonder.

            “Was that other noise…?”

            “The Goddess, yes.”

            The next few minutes were emotional, Ilane and Shinko hugging her repeatedly with most unYamani expressions despite Kel’s protests that she was fine, and while yes, she had been dead for some very short time, she wasn’t any more and was thoroughly healed. Over their heads she made a mute appeal to Thayet, watching with a frown and tears in her eyes, but the queen shrugged and opened her hands eloquently: if Kel would drop such anvils into conversation she must expect to be hammered. Ruefully Kel agreed but after a while managed to ease her mother and Cricket back, feeling with some pleasure a sparking irony as she managed—in practice clothing—to produce a clean handkerchief for them to dab their eyes; Thayet had already used a napkin.

            “Well, I can see why you don’t want your papa to know, sweeting. He’d have fifty kinds of fit, even with you alive and well in front of him. Was it … was it very bad, dearest?”

            Kel wasn’t going to start lying at this stage. “Yes. I was pretty much unconscious at the time but the dream memories were vile, and I was in a bad way for a while—frozen inside and very snappy with everyone. But Lord Gainel helped, waking me from bad dreams and sending nice ones—being a child in the Islands, Cricket, full of laughter with you and Yuki, though I couldn’t remember about what. Then the Goddess healed me properly and they’ve stopped.” She considered her mother carefully. “I really don’t want to say more but if you have to know ask Alanna. I’ll tell her it’s alright to speak to you. But please don’t—details don’t matter and it’s over.” She took a breath and added a truth she’d recognised on her journey south, offering a crooked smile. “It was what you might call a learning experience and I’ve learned a lot—though there’s still one mystery no-one’s solved and that’s the stormwings.”

            “Stormwings?”

            The voices were in unison and Kel explained the strange business of the tauroses’ heads, ending with the familiar litany of Chargy, Bargy, Horny, Toothy, Dimwit, Flatnose, and Pizzle, which she was beginning to think more inspired than she’d realised; it was certainly useful, and all three women’s hands leaped to their mouths, as Lalasa’s had done at the news of Wyldon dancing. Ilane was the first to recover.

            “Kel, sweeting, if it’s taught you that kind of resilient self-mockery I almost have to be grateful—you’ve always been earnest to a fault. But gods, love, I wouldn’t have had you learn it this way for the world.”

            Thayet nodded fierce agreement but had a probing question. “Was it really just the tauroses having been chaos-touched, Keladry? You didn’t say the other dead  were sent back too.”

            “No it wasn’t,” Kel confessed. “As best I understand that was the main reason but the Goddess said they’d seen some future she wouldn’t describe where I do something that matters to them and plays in.”

            “Connected with Irnai’s prophecy?”

            “What prophecy?” Ilane’s voice was sharp as she looked between her queen and her daughter.

            “Oops.” Thayet shrugged. “Sorry. I forgot Ilane didn’t know.”

            Though dismayed Kel shrugged—it had been bound to come out sooner or later—and told her mother what Irnai had said so surprisingly during her verbal report.

            “It’s all so inconclusive. Numair says prophecies almost always are.”

            “Jon hates them.” Thayet frowned again. “But it does seem you’re going to face something at New Hope.”

            “Yes, I think so—it’s why I’ve driven hard to make it as impregnable as I can. Mama, I know it’s worrying and you have to tell Papa, but please remember I’m behind the best fortifications between Northwatch and Frasrlund and we’re on guard against everything.”

            “It didn’t stop that tauros.” Ilane’s voice was mild; her eyes weren’t.

            Kel shrugged again. “True, but I can’t stay in my room for the rest of my life. If I’m to die in battle I’ll die fighting all the way.” Seeing her mother’s face she added something she hadn’t meant to. “And I have the Black God’s promise that all the people I’ve sent to him myself won’t speak against me before his judges. I hope it’s a long time away, but if it’s tomorrow I’ll be at peace. Oh, and Th—Your Majesty, the—”

            “I prefer Thayet, Keladry. I’ve been waiting for you to do that.”

            “Then it’s Kel. Thayet, the Goddess said the children Blayce murdered are specially cared for by the Black God and contented in the Peaceful Realms. The other tauros victims too. I though you might want to have that proclaimed—about the children I mean—though I’d much rather you didn’t mention me. It’s another sign of how the gods regard necromancy and I don’t think Alanna would mind being named as the source. It’s her the Goddess told, when I was sleeping after healing.”

            Thayet nodded sharply. “Yes, that’s good. I’ll talk to Jon and Alanna. Since we made the proclamation accompanying your report that explained about that vile mage and the killing devices I’ve heard real anger and disgust about the children. We had a killing device put on show, did you know? So people will be glad to be reassured about that.” Her face took on a different look Kel couldn’t interpret. “Forgive me, Kel, but you’re constantly surprising me these days and I’m not the only one. You’re so … well, frankly, unschooled in politics you can condemn yourself out-of-hand when it’d be madness for Jon to take offence, but then come up with something like this—and what you said about Lalasa’s classes and training Palace women—that’s politically very smart indeed.”

            “Don’t worry about it, Thayet.” Ilane’s voice was dry. “Just imagine a good diplomat’s self-effacement with romantic chivalry and warrior stoicism behind it instead of cold calculation, then throw in an oversize dollop of heroism and being the youngest of nine. Do you wonder the gods are watching as intently as all of us?”

            “Not really. That makes sense, Ilane. Very Mindelan sense.”

            Kel didn’t know where to look and glared at her mother wrathfully. “That’s … that’s …”

            “Entirely true, sweeting? You’ve taken the best of your papa and me and added something all your own. Several somethings, actually. Do you have the slightest idea how formidable a woman you’ve become?”

            Kel’s annoyance turned to confusion and the conversation ran down gently, though she was still dismayed by the look on Shinko’s face and when the royals had to leave took care to hug her again, promising time soon to talk—not least about Yuki. When maids came to clear the table her mother towed her out to the Queen’s Garden where a sheltered bench afforded privacy and clasping her hands painfully made her go through what had happened with the gods again. Kel saw no reason to detail the Hag’s grey flesh or the state she’d got herself into believing it mockery, and even with her mother shied from the embarrassing intimacies involved, but did relate what the Black God had said and added that she’d seen his face. Stunned and big-eyed again, her mother once more had to borrow her handkerchief before smiling weakly.

            “Oh sweeting, I don’t know what to say. What can I say? I’m horrified by what you’ve been through and so relieved you’re alive and don’t have any idea what to make of these things the Black God said. I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

            “It doesn’t happen often.” Kel relayed Quenuresh’s comment.

            “You talked to that spidren about it?”

            “She killed the last tauros, Mama, and got it off me, so she was there when I … came alive again. She was very helpful, cloaking me when I wasn’t decent and helping with Peachblossom until Daine got there.”

            “Then I owe her a debt I can’t repay.”

            “I doubt she sees it like that but I’ll tell her, if you like.”

            “Please do. Perhaps we can make a deal with spidrens at Mindelan or something.” Ilane’s eyes sharpened. “So poor Peachblossom’s not fit for work anymore? I’m sorry—I know how you love that horse, for all his terrible temper. Did you ride Hoshi south?”

            “I’ll miss him horribly on the battlefield but he’s not too bad. He’s so smart I’ve given him the run of New Hope and he does rounds inspecting sentries.” That brought the expected laugh. “And no. I didn’t ride Hoshi, I have a new horse—Alder. He’s in the stables here.”

            “A warhorse? Where did you get one in the north?”

            “Wyldon gave him to me.” Kel blushed as her mother’s eyebrows rose. “I haven’t had a chance to thank him yet, but he and Owen should be here soon. Owen told me he didn’t want me to be without a gelding but said something wise too, I thought—that it was what Wyldon can give. He’s apologised to me about the probation thing, twice now, but he … well, we both find that sort of conversation difficult, and I think this is his way of making up for doing something he thought was right at the time but now thinks a mistake.”

            “Maybe, Kel, love—I can see him doing something like that. And I’m relieved you’ve a good warhorse—the ones he breeds are fine animals—but it’s a remarkable gift all the same.”

            “I think he feels guilty about what happened, Mama. Gods know he’s no reason to, but it was … on his watch, I suppose he’d say.”

            “I understand that—I feel the same and so will your papa if he finds out. Still, I think there’s more to it, Kel. It’s a father’s gift more than a friend’s.”

            “Perhaps.” Kel wasn’t comfortable with this at all, though oddly she thought she might have been if she were talking to Yuki or Shinko. “He taught me a lot and still does, so his good opinion matters to me more than anyone’s except yours and Papa’s and Raoul’s.”

            “Mmm, I realised that long ago, sweeting. Mind you, it had to matter given the position you were in.” Ilane hesitated. “Did he advise you about petitioning the Council? I wondered—we thought you’d made a very smart move there—Duke Gary told us about the notice you sent and the documents that followed, not long after we got your letter. I think it’ll sail through, but did you know Tirrsmont is in town? He was refused accommodation at the Palace, much to his fury, but he’s taken rooms at that big inn near the Provost’s House and there’s talk he’s going to make a formal claim for New Hope as well as a complaint about you not being servile enough for his taste.”

            Kel’s eyes went hard. “He can claim and complain all he likes. He was pig-rude and had no authority anyway. Do you know what he wanted from New Hope, apart from owning it? Miners to hack him out silver, even though the mines are closed and he refused the miners shelter when they had to flee their homes. Vanget, Wyldon, Raoul, Alanna, and Ennor of Frasrlund are all dead set against him getting another inch of land, let alone New Hope, so he can whistle for it.” A mark dropped in Kel’s mind. “Has Conal been drawn to him?”

            “Oh yes, like a moth to flame.” Her mother’s voice was tight. “Was that what you had words about yesterday?”

            “More or less. He told me I wouldn’t get away with insulting Tirrsmont. Oh, and that my ‘Scanran bastard’ was a disgrace.” Anxiety assailed her. “What do Anders and Inness think? Or Orie and Adie?”

            “Don’t worry, love. Anders and Inness were fine, Patricine was interested, Avinar thought it a virtuous thing, as he would, and your sisters seemed to think it just like you to graduate from stray animals to stray children.” Ilane smiled, warmth breaking through worry. “Which it is. Only Conal fussed, blethering about reputation, and I’m sorry for that. I don’t know where we went wrong with that boy, and though I don’t like to say so of any child of mine he’s not grown into a nice man. It’s no wonder he’s unmarried still, though he’ll turn thirty next year.”

            Kel shrugged. “He hasn’t changed in all the time I’ve known him, Mama, so I can’t see you or Papa did anything wrong. He was a bully then and still is. Some people are. I can stay away but I won’t have him insulting Tobe—he had enough of that sort of thing before I met him.”

            “Don’t you dare stay away, love—if Conal can’t be civil he can stay away. He’s no pleasure to talk to these days—one complaint after another about how we’re going to the dogs. It’s rubbish.”

            “Well, so’s Tirrsmont.”

            “Yes he is, but I can’t help remembering how his son tried to kill you and claimed his lance slipped. Take care, Kel, even here. Especially here.”

            Kel promised but was uncomfortably reminded of Zerhalm’s words at the council, thinking ruefully that she had relaxed vigilance. Parting from her mother with promises to come with the children again once Adie and Orie arrived, she walked in the gardens a while, thinking hard, then went to find Numair. He was not long up and tousle-haired, hunched over breakfast, but smiled and offered a seat.

            “I hope you don’t mind, Kel, but I sent Kitten to take up your offer of playing with the children. She’s so chirpy in the mornings and I’m not.”

            Kel grinned. “That’s fine. I can’t be with them all the time and I expect Kitten’s missing her ma. Actually, she’s probably a protection for them and that’s what I wanted to ask you about.”           

            “A protection?” His gaze sharpened as she explained her concerns.

            “I know it seems unlikely, but I promised Zerhalm and my Mama to do all I can. And one thing I’ve started to realise about politics is that people do the same things all the time, even if it didn’t work before, so I can’t help remembering what happened to Lalasa. I can take my chances but Tobe and Irnai can’t, so I wondered if you could do magical protections—my windows and door, and I don’t know if it’s possible but if there’s anything that could help locate them if something happens …”

            “It may be unlikely, Kel—I can’t see who’d do that—but it’s good thinking. It’s always better to prevent something than have to try fixing it after. I can certainly spell your rooms so only you and the children can enter without invitation, and if you keep safe a lock of each of the children’s hair I could locate them . Mmm. There’s also … wait a minute.”

            He went to his workroom and came back with three slim bracelets set with a dull green stone. “Here. Put the largest one on.”

            Kel did, Numair muttered words under his breath, and to her surprise the bracelet vanished, though she could still feel it.

            “No-one need know it’s there, but make sure it’s clear of your sleeve when you’re going to eat or drink anything—within a few feet of anything poisoned the stone will flash.” He grinned without humour at the look on Kel’s face. “I made them for us when we visited Carthak. I can put the others on the children and hide them when I do the room. Poison’s not likely, maybe, but it’s a political weapon, and a coward’s, and none of the likely villains are going to want to challenge you openly so it’s possible they’d try something like that.”

            Kel was grateful, poison never having crossed her mind, and once Numair had finished his food they went to her rooms. Kitten was happily making individual stones in the walls light up, flashing colours in complex patterns, with an avid Tobe and Irnai applauding, but after discovering why Numair had come wanted to watch his magic. While he set about spelling windows, chimneys, and outer door Kel gave the bracelets to the children, explaining how they worked, and took clippings of their hair which she put safely away. Returning, she saw wide eyes and squatted.

            “It’s just being careful, you know—I’m not expecting anything like that, really. But do you remember the man who came to the gate wanting to take our miners? The Lord of Tirrsmont? Well, he’s here, still angling to get New Hope for himself, and that’s not going to happen so he might be stupid enough to try something else. And six years ago someone who wanted to hurt me kidnapped Lalasa so I want to make sure you’re both safe. We’ll also get you each a good beltknife so you have something with bite if you need it.”

            That cheered Tobe up though Irnai looked doubtful. “The god hasn’t warned me of anything.”

            “Good. I hope she would, Irnai, but it doesn’t do to count on it. And the gods like us to make an effort, I think.”

            Irnai nodded, face clearing. “Yes. When the god warned me about the Kinslayer I had to hide, for ages sometimes. And when she told me to go to Rathhausak she said to travel by night and hide during the day.”

            “That’s the sort of thing, yes. This is the same. I don’t want you worrying, just being careful. Being with Kitten’s good too—she has magic and sharp teeth, and no-one in their right mind would take a chance of hurting her. Now, I’m sorry I was away so long—a meeting dragged on and then I had to see Numair. Have you had breakfast?”

            They hadn’t, so once Numair had spelled bracelets into invisibility, which pleased both of them, they went to the day kitchen and once they’d eaten set about errands. Kel took them to meet as many senior Palace servants as she knew and could find, including Salma and the duty officers of the Palace Guard, so they knew people who could help them and were themselves known. After that, deciding the crowds, if they formed, had to be endured, she took them to the Temple District to make offerings to the Goddess and Lord Mithros for their safety while she gave thanks for her healing. Then they headed to an armourer on Palace Way, less expensive than Raven Armoury but used to dealing with pages and with a better stock of weapons for smaller hands; with Alanna’s gifts Kel had never needed to buy from him herself but had been with others, and he’d never been less than gravely polite, seeming not to notice her gender.

            There were smiles as they were recognised but the fuss the day before seemed to have got it out of people’s systems and Kel was able to smile back with reasonable cheer. She nevertheless found herself newly conscious of vulnerability to a crossbow bolt from some hidden spot and her shoulders itched, but she could hardly put the children in mail or wear it herself on everyday business; she did however make a mental note to get three good buff jerkins that might turn a blade. The armourer was as polite as ever, greyer than she remembered, and dealt with the children well, making them jab with several knives before advising which he thought best-suited. When she asked about jerkins he was able to produce some that had sheets of an astonishingly light metal between tough outer leather and a thin inner layer, with warm linings.

            “The metal comes from Carthak, my Lady—a fruit of the Princess’s marriage. It won’t stop a full blow with a real weapon or a bolt at close range, but with the leather it’ll stop most daggers and arrows short of a needlehead. I’ve the smaller ones because a noble ordered them for his children but decided he’d go for full chainmail without telling me, so I’d be glad to move them, to be frank. And we keep a range in adult female sizes and cuts—they’re becoming quite popular with the ladies who do proper weapons training as a safeguard that’s lighter than mail.”

            Kel took them at once with one for herself and after a moment’s thought the largest they had, for Numair as a Midwinter gift—even exposed on alures or battlefields he never wore mail, relying on magic, but she thought he might accept one of these and that Daine would be happy. Pleased, she had the children put theirs on, with belts to hang their knives from, and donned her own. When the armourer presented the bill she discovered a generous discount and turned in protest.

            “You’re robbing yourself, Master Randall. This can hardly cover costs, never mind any profit. I’m happy to pay properly and I should.”

            He raised eyebrows. “Wonders never cease—a noble wanting to pay more than I ask?” He shook his head. “No, my Lady, I’ll not take a penny more. My children are grown but I have a father’s  care, and I knew about the killing devices and how they sounded when slain, so I rejoiced when I heard you’d killed the necromancer. It’s my honour and pleasure to serve you, and the horse boy and seer who helped you.”

            The cynical voice Kel didn’t like told her Master Randall might be making shrewder calculations, about benefits for business of serving the people’s present darlings, but she thought him sincere and reluctantly accepted. To salve her conscience she made a more expensive plunge, still at discount, and ordered a complete set of scale-armour barding for Alder in the Carthaki metal—shaffron, crinet, peytral, flanchards, crupper, and protection for reins, omitting only caparisons for which she had no use or taste and weren’t an armourer’s business anyway. Cost aside, she’d never used barding for Peachblossom or Hoshi because in iron the weight was so great the horse was slowed, unable to rear and soon exhausted, but lighter metal would offer considerable protection for less disadvantage, and for skirmishing should serve well.

            They left Alder in the armourer’s stables to be measured, with the children’s horses for company, tipping the ostler to see to them, and Kel took the children on a whirlwind tour of the main shopping area lower on Palace Way, buying Midwinter gifts and helping Tobe choose things for her parents and sisters, and both children tokens for Alanna, Daine, Numair, and Kitten. It all added up, and their final visit, to the goldsmith to authorise Lalasa’s withdrawals and payments to the armourer and shopkeeps sending purchases to the Palace made her feel better, though the sum hardly dented the balance her frugality and Lalasa’s tithing had built up. Tobe’s eyes widened as he saw the goldsmith’s obsequious respect and heard the sums involved, and outside he looked at her with that old man she thought she’d driven away in his eyes.

            “I didn’t know you were so rich, Ma. Alvik woulda killed for a hundredth of what you have.”

            Nonplussed, Kel shrugged weakly. “Would he, Tobe? More fool him. It is a lot, I know, far more than most people have—it’s because of what Lalasa gives me from her shop and money I won jousting when those stupid conservatives would insist on challenging me because I was a girl—but there are plenty of people with more, not just nobles. My Papa taught me a lot about how money works, and so did Sir Myles—Alanna’s da. You haven’t met him yet, but you will. You’ll like him, I think—he’s fun, though he sometimes drinks too much.”

            The moment passed, to Kel’s relief, but she added money matters to her list for Tobe’s education and wondered if it should go on the New Hope school curriculum; Idrius Valestone had been dealing with barter and principles of stock-keeping and accounting, but straight talk about finance would be a good thing all around. Meanwhile, the children’s stomachs agreed with her own that they’d earned lunch, and feeling safer with the jerkins, and the reticence of people who smiled as they passed but didn’t interrupt, she took them to a stall in the Daymarket that served the best meatrolls and bubbly pies in Corus; and afterwards on a tour of the city walls. It produced meetings with two gate captains and many of the duty watch, and in her mind safety points racked up; when they eventually collected the horses and headed back, weary and satisfied, Kel felt she’d redeemed her promises as far as she could. Any assault was more likely to be aimed at her than the children, and to be verbal or legal rather than physical, but she’d covered all possibilities she could think of and with Numair’s help one she hadn’t. Not even the gods could ask more.

           

* * * * *

 

As Midwinter neared Kel’s days fell into a routine. After glaive practice at dawn and breakfasts with Thayet and Cricket, she took the children to eat and spent mornings with them, in lessons or showing them around and introducing them to friends. Tobe ingratiated himself with Onua and Stefan Groomsman and spent afternoons learning horselore, while Irnai, doubtful at first, found she liked an elderly seer Numair took her to see and usually went to the old man for tea; both became thick as thieves with Kitten, to Kel’s and Numair’s mingled relief and consternation. Kel spent afternoons with the pages, training with the Own, or in the Palace Library, carefully checking legalities of fief-grants and claims for extension; she sought one of Turomot’s senior clerks for instruction in the complexities of what happened when military regulations, statute law, and noble privilege clashed. She also had a long morning with Shinko.

            Her initial glaive session with the pages, among them a pleased Lachran grown out of all recognition and two girls she recognised from those who’d talked to her after seeing her joust, had been a spectacular success. After showing her live weapon and starting them on a pattern dance that contained all the basic moves she’d asked Sergeant Ezeko to get a cheap training sword and similar axe and run through the most efficient ways in which glaive could defeat swords. Then she’d gathered the pages by eye and tried to make her voice unthreatening but intense.

            “And that’s just basics. I know the pattern dances seem boring, but there is no substitute in building skill and balance. And you’re lucky—you’ll have them built into training. I did mine as extras, before dawn every day. I still do most dawns, with Her Majesty and Princess Shinkokami, who is very good, I warn you. Sergeant Ezeko, if you’ll trust me, would you try attacking for real for a moment and let me defend?”

            She knew Ezeko’s style well, and when after a few moments of right-side thrusts and sweeps he suddenly switched left, angling his blade in at her stomach she was ready and perfectly positioned to bring her glaive down hard. The rippled Yamani steel cut straight through the cheap metal of the training sword, and a twist of her wrists brought the blade to rest on his chest as he hastily stepped back. Politely she picked up the severed blade and handed it to him.

            “The Yamanis make good weapons—don’t ever think otherwise. Raven Armoury’s as good, not better. And the glaive has two ends. Sergeant, could you grab that axe and attack again, assuming you’ve stuck me with the point in the left shoulder, so I’m losing mobility in that arm, and close, using your superior strength against my weak side?”

            Ezeko looked glum but gamely did as asked, bearing down hard with his full weight and strength when she restricted her defence on the left side to simulate the effects of the injury she remembered all too well. Neatly she hooked his legs from under him and as he hit the floor, arms flying out to break his fall, brought the iron-shod butt of her glaive to rest on his forehead. After helping him up she turned back to the pages.

            “And that’s how Stenmun Kinslayer died, the butt of this glaive breaking his skull right between his eyes. I cut his throat to be sure, but that was belt-and-braces. So remember your glaive has two ends. Hajikoru does. His Fourteen Moonlight Dances with the Naginata is in the Palace Library, in a decent translation, and as good a basic text as I know for any weapon. You’ll find the language flowery but don’t be fooled—he makes very good sense. Now, pair up and let’s see what you can all do.”

            Thereafter the session was something of a mess because everyone was enthusiastic, none more so than the girls whom Kel was careful not to favour but did give warm smiles and advice about using slow dances to strengthen muscle and improve balance. As their bodies developed they’d need to adjust their stances, especially if they turned out bigger breasted or narrower hipped than she was, but Eda Bell knew all about that. Afterwards Lord Padraig was extremely pleased.

            “You’re a natural teacher, Lady Knight—solid stuff to start, a demonstration to rivet all, and excellent interventions in the practice pairings.” He shook his head. “So many good knights are hopeless teachers it makes this job harder than I’d expected. But I’ll welcome you as often as you’re free, for glaivework or anything you fancy—tilting, perhaps? I saw you stay seated against Wyldon on Progress, when you were a squire, which I confess I’ve never managed. And I’ve heard squires who remember you—Mandash and Vikison Lake in particular—say you’re like butter with a staff. What was it Mandash said? ‘All smooth and no cowhairs’, I think.”

            Kel laughed. “He was quoting Iden. They came to me for help when they were first years and I was third. It was just stance and grip.” She glanced at him sidelong. “Sergeant Ezeko’s an excellent fighter, but he doesn’t always see basic problems like that.”

            “Or expects them to work it out for themselves, yes. I’ve noticed that, Lady Knight.”

            Taking a chance she put a hand on his arm. “I’d prefer Keladry, my Lord. Or just Kel, though I’ve not persuaded Wyldon to such levity yet.”

            His glance was keen and amused. “I wish you luck—he told me you were on first-name terms. And in that case, Keladry, it’s Padraig.”

            They parted with an invitation to Kel and the children to dine on the high table in the pages’ hall that evening—an event that gave her the strangest feeling but Tobe especially enjoyed, not only for Padraig’s unpatronising conversation about horses but the alacrity with which the pages stood when she entered and obvious excitement at her presence. It was, he told her afterwards, proper given all she’d done for so many people, and after tucking him and Irnai in she retired to bed unable to distinguish embarrassed gratification from gratified embarrassment and almost wishing for the isolated ease of New Hope.

            There were interruptions to routine as people arrived. Orie and Adie were first, with husbands and children, and Kel took Tobe and Irnai to a family feast at her parents’ townhouse that went better than she’d expected. Conal stayed away, whether by choice or parental command she wasn’t sure, and her sisters showed a newly wary respect, as did their husbands, Meronec of Nond and Ortien of Hannalof, Lady Uline’s cousin. Meronec made it quietly clear that while his parents had been approached by Tirrsmont he’d seen his father’s letter from Lord Ferghal haMinch, as Ortien had seen his uncle’s. Vanget’s elder brother ruled the haMinchi clan and both brothers-in-law insisted everyone knew whom they believed when it came to defence of the northern border. Half-flattered, half-irritated, and altogether loathing politics Kel thanked them but was better pleased that Tobe and Irnai got on with Lachran, released for the event, and highly amused when her nephew found himself co-opted into the familiar New Hope discipline of older caring for younger. Her sisters and their husbands were surprised, impressed, and relieved, and though Tobe and Irnai lacked the polished manners some thought important and had rougher voices—as well as Tobe his blond Scanran looks, making him stand out among them like a straw against earth—both were painstakingly polite to all adults and so clearly good-hearted that they made better impressions than they knew. Hearing surprised wifely whispers from her sisters Kel knew word would spread, and if she detested the inconsequential social rounds Orie and Adie seemed to live for she knew well what hurt and malice they could sow, and gave silent thanks on Tobe’s behalf.

            The following day Wyldon and Owen arrived, cutting it finer than intended because the snowstorm that brushed New Hope had been far heavier at Mastiff, making their journey very slow until Bearsford. The cold in the north had deepened sharply, Wyldon said, all thoughts of a mild winter vanquished by continuing heavy snowfall. Kel wasn’t sure if she was more relieved at the impediment to the enemy or worried by New Hope’s perhaps lengthy isolation, but she had thanks for Alder to give and did so directly, heightening both their colours.

            Owen, after greeting her with his usual exuberance, bounced off to find his father, and Wyldon tried to steer conversation away from his generosity to hers in helping Owen, who had, he said, been much calmer and properly determined since visiting her. Waving this away in turn Kel told him about the barding she’d ordered and at his surprise showed him a sample of the Carthaki metal she’d been given by the armourer. They fell into mutually congenial discussion about savings in weight against loss of strength, Wyldon dubious and Kel pointing out that while the metal could be pierced by a determined thrust at close range it would deflect anything short of that and, more importantly, give protection against arrow volleys at distance without slowing a charge; they both knew what kind of havoc those could wreak, not by piercing armour but by injuring mounts or making them stumble and pitch riders off. Wyldon wound up agreeing to see the barding when Kel took Alder for a fitting, and as she helped him tote bags to his rooms, not far from her own, she told him with shared enjoyment and irony about Padraig’s invitation and demonstrating her move against Stenmun at Sergeant Ezeko’s expense.

            She also received a brief letter from Dom that left her more worried than reassured. Besides thanking her for gifts and good wishes and asserting he was doing well he said next to nothing yet managed to suggest that however much better his leg his spirit was unhealed. Duke Baird had had a similar letter and was equally worried but didn’t see what could be done; the axe-wound had left Dom’s right calf very weak and even standing would be problematic, the leg liable to buckle, while riding an estate would be somewhere between painful and impossible. Distressed, Kel tried to think.

            “Can it not be braced?”

            “Perhaps, but I’ve known too many cases where the weight of the brace is a problem in itself, Keladry. Even in strong men it tends to cause such severe cramping in the thigh muscle that help standing isn’t worth the price. Chafes nastily, too. A cane is better.”

            Kel reached into her pocket. “Could you use this new Carthaki metal? It’s much lighter.”

            Baird frowned, weighing it in his hand. “This is the stuff in those jerkins? I see you have one. It is light, isn’t it? Is it strong enough?”

            Kel explained how she’d learned about it, her barding, and her reasoning about weight. Baird’s eyes were intent as he thanked her, promising to see what could be done, and she left in better heart.

            The final arrival, on a horse borrowed from Raoul at Steadfast and accompanied by an escort, was Daine, and when Kel learned of it from an exuberant Kitten one morning she also learned the delay and mundane transport had been because the Wildmage was pregnant.

            I shall have a brother or sister in May though Mama says she doesn’t want to know which. Kitten’s mindvoice was a chortle.

            “May?” Kel did a quick calculation. “But she was shapeshifting after—is that possible?           

            Oh yes, but she wouldn’t have shifted if she’d known—she says it’s given the baby ideas and it keeps shifting in her womb. Wolf-shape, mostly, Mama says, but also bird-forms and once a river-horse. While it is still small it is just uncomfortable but when the baby gets bigger it might be very awkward.

            Kel stared, trying and entirely failing to imagine what it might mean to find yourself abruptly pregnant with a wolf-cub or a hundredweight of river-horse. “Is she alright, Kitten?”

            Yes, but she is tired and I think she will be very grumpy.

            “Well, that happens. How did Numair take the news?”

            He said he was beside himself with joy but there is still only one of him. I think he meant he was very happy.

            “He did. Will you tell them I’m delighted for them both?”

            I will but Mama wants to see you. She said she had interesting news. And Kawit should be back from exploring the Forest today so you must meet her. She is very nice and does the best illusions of anyone.

            “She does?”

            Yes. Opal dragons are best at illusions and she is very good. Even I could not tell when I met her but she has to try hard to fool me now.

            “Oh.” Wondering how this opal dragon would fare against a griffin Honesty Gate Kel asked when she should come to see Daine and was told anytime was good, so she left Kitten telling Tobe and Irnai about the animal forms her Mama liked best, interspersed with educational remarks, and went to find her friend. Far from being obviously tired Daine seemed full of energy, sheepishly accepted congratulations, enquired earnestly after Kel’s wellbeing, declaring herself fair relieved at the further healing from the Goddess, and complained at length that she hadn’t intended to get pregnant, tearfully adding how sorry she was that she wouldn’t be able to fly over Scanran territory when at any moment she might have to turn her lower half into a wolf or a river-horse. Kel hadn’t quite extrapolated that Tortallan intelligence would be severely crimped but hid dismay, knowing how much time and energy Daine had already sacrificed for her adopted country, and to Numair’s amusement produced yet another clean handkerchief.

            “It will be alright, magelet. You can magic some hawks and send them to meet the owls that gather information from the smaller birds.”

            Never having understood how the information-gathering worked Kel was fascinated, but Daine just scowled.

            “And what do the poor hawks do with themselves afterwards when just being hawks isn’t enough any more?”

            “Whatever they want, magelet. Their possibilities will be greater.”

            “Which the People don’t always enjoy, and you know it. Think of poor Brokefang. I gave him awful headaches.”

            “And saved his pack and Dunlath as a hunting-ground.”           

            “Mmph.”

            Wisely, Numair changed tack. “Tell Kel about Barzha and Hebakh.”

            Daine brightened. “That’s right, Kel—I’ve solved your stormwing mystery. When Lord Wyldon told me about it he described the stormwings you said talked to you after Haven—a Yamani-looking female and big-nosed male? That rang a bell because there were two like that in the Stone Tree Nation, Rikash’s flock, and I know their queen, Barzha Razorwing, and her consort Hebakh from Carthak and the Immortals War, so I looked them up. It was the Stone Tree Nation who followed you to Rathhausak and back, and they were protecting you on behalf of the children, as you thought—they were very impressed with you all round, actually, though they say you’re mean about letting them have enemy dead to play with.”

            “And the tauros heads?”

            “That was them too. They sensed the divine presences when you were first healed, Barzha said, as well as the deaths of many immortals and the mage and came to see what had happened. She wouldn’t tell me why they’d cleaned and returned the skulls but she will tell you, if you want. They’re roosting in the Royal Forest for the winter.”

            “Oh.” Kel frowned, not wanting in the least to meet stormwings but knowing she’d have to. “Did she say why they’ve not been letting themselves be seen? They never hid before.”

            “No, but I bet she knows about Irnai’s prophecy and is being very careful about the Greenwoods valley.”

            “How would stormwings know about that? Not many people do, and it hasn’t leaked.”

            Daine shrugged and Numair steepled fingers. “I can’t be certain, Kel, but I’ve read that if a true prophecy involves any immortal they will be aware when Shakith speaks through her Chosen. I’ve no idea if Barzha heard it herself or was told about it by a stormwing who did, though, or even if all stormwings heard it. You could ask her.”

            Kel steeled herself. “Alright. When?”

            Daine shrugged again. “Now, if you and the children are free—we should take them both. And I’d rather deal with stormwing stink before lunch than after.”           

            That was true so Kel reluctantly collected the children, Kitten bouncing and asking to come, made sure they were warmly dressed, and grabbed a pot of strong-smelling unguent that was useful when a summer battlefield had to be cleared. When they came to the paddocks which backed onto the Forest Daine warned the watchmen what would be happening while Kel dabbed the children’s noses and her own with unguent before offering it to Numair, who hadn’t known the trick and accepted gratefully. Daine also accepted, when she returned, but Kitten sniffed warily, sneezed, and indignantly refused, saying she’d rather smell stormwings than hurt her nose.

            “Is this a common thing, Kel?” Numair’s laughter was tempered by curiosity. “It’s made from a southern plant used in very small quantities in perfumery but I don’t recall seeing soldiers using it like this before.”

            “I learned the trick in the Own, from one of the sergeants when we had to clear bodies after an earthquake, and I’ve made sure we have some at New Hope. Latrine crews use it when the weather’s warmer.”

            “I bet they do.”

            Climbing the paddock rails they went across to the eaves to a point Daine chose, looking at available branches, and she closed her eyes.

            “They’re coming.”

            She tipped her face skyward and Kel heard wingbeats, gathering the children with an arm round each. There were half-a-dozen, steel wings glinting in the winter light, including the Yamani-looking female who cackled as she saw Kel. The sound was horribly familiar, but as the immortals perched and the backdraft brought a stench of ordure and rot Kel realised the glass-crowned queen and fidgety male beside her were very different propositions. They landed lower than the others and carried themselves with conscious authority, the queen’s face as regal as her gaze was piercing. Deciding proactivity was called for Kel didn’t wait for introductions but gave a bow, speaking as she straightened and put her arms once more around the children’s shoulders.

            “Your Majesty, I am Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, commanding at New Hope. These are Tobeis of Mindelan and Irnai of Rathhausak. The Godborn tells me you and your flock were responsible for guarding our return from Rathhausak, and for cleaning the tauros heads. May I offer you thanks for your aid and gift, but also ask why you gave it? It has caused much mortal confusion.”

            Barzha arched her eyebrows. “You are very direct, Protector of the Small, and unusually polite for a mortal. You also reek of godwork.”

            Biting back a retort about reeks Kel nodded. “So Quenuresh informed me. It is beyond my control but I am sorry if it troubles you.”

            Beside Barzha, Hebakh bated, sidling on the branch, but the queen took her gaze from Kel only to inspect the children. “It does not, but I have never met a mortal save perhaps Ozorne on whom so much of the timeway rests. The Godborn says you understand we treasure the young, and we too despise necromancy. The tauros skulls were tributes to your courage in saving so many from such a mage.”

            Hebakh sidled again, steel claws gouging wood. “If you’re going to tell her at all, tell her properly.”

            Barzha still gazed at Kel. “The form of the tribute goes back to an incident of the Godwars. The skulls of seven godslain dragons were mounted on a new way to Lord Mithros’s hall.”

            Kel didn’t dare look at Kitten but heard an indignant whistle. Barzha took no notice but obviously understood.

            “The dragons objected then too, filling the skulls with dragonfire so hot even a god who passes will be scorched to the bone. They are there still, and no god has taken that path in all the centuries since. We were struck by the number of tauroses, by nature solitary immortals, and by the Black God sending you back—the first mortal to whom he has done that in a very long time. You placed the skulls on your roadway. Draw your own conclusions, Protector.”

            One part of Kel’s brain was confused, the rest spinning furiously. “The Black God said the tauroses were touched by Uusoae before her banishment. Lord Mithros and the Goddess would not permit her interference, and Quenuresh says disorder acted against their solitary natures. Will you tell me your conclusions, Your Majesty?”

            Barzha shrugged. “The timeway completes a spiral. Much that is old comes round again. None can do more than play the odds—even gods.”

            “Do you know of Shakith’s prophecy through Irnai, after Samradh?”

            “All stormwings heard it as it was made.” Barzha nodded to Irnai, as relaxed under Kel’s arm as Tobe was tense.

            “Is that why you have stayed away from the Greenwoods valley? And beheaded the tauroses at night, not soiling the bodies?”

            “Of course. Such a prophecy is not to be trifled with. Shakith did not mean we would play with the fruits only of a skirmish.”

            Kel’s gaze bored into the queen’s. “How do you know? The prophecy doesn’t say anything about that.”

            “True but irrelevant. The gods may like their stupid jokes but the timeway no more plays with irony than Uusoae. Shakith spoke from the heart of light. It will be no skirmish, Protector.”

            Kel knew it for truth and on instinct made a decision she’d been pondering since the skulls reappeared. “Will you hear an offer, then?” Barzha inclined her head. “Come openly to the Greenwoods. No mortal or immortal under treaty will offer harm, and while I live you will play with nothing dead there, nor slay anything yourselves, without my let. If there is anything practical you need of mortal or immortal, you will ask and within our reason and capacity we will answer.”

            Kel was aware of Numair’s mouth opening and closing like a fish’s but her attention was on the queen, whom she knew she’d surprised.

            “That is … an interesting offer, Protector. Would you add us to your immortal menagerie, like Ozorne?”

            Kel shrugged, puzzled. “I don’t know about Ozorne’s menagerie but I meant nothing like that. Will you call Dunlath a menagerie? Or tell Quenuresh I keep her as a pet? We deal fairly with one another and I strive to protect all my people, of whatever shape, however I may as this timeway completes its spiral. Aren’t you doing the same?”

            Hebakh turned a malicious grin on his mate. “She has you there.”

            Barzha again ignored him. “Of course I am. Our numbers are yet low from our losses in the Immortals War.”

            Kel made a leap. “Then come to the Greenwoods. Know your young are safe there, that in need we will shelter and aid them. And if there is aught we can do to help in their bearing or delivery, we will. Forgive me, but I can’t help thinking a pair of hands might sometimes be of use.”

            There were wild cackles and Barzha bated, making Hebakh hop sideways. Her voice was iron.

            “And will a mortal healer or midwife tolerate our smell, Protector?”

            “You wash first, as best you can, and we’ll stick pegs on our noses if we have to, but if there’s a stormwing in labour or a youngling we can help, we will, by my word, who has seen the Black God’s face.”

            Kel didn’t know where the last words came from but they seemed right and Barzha’s face went very still.

            “I will think on it, Protector. When you return to New Hope, we will speak again. Now we must go.”

            She and Hebakh leaped from their branch, others following. The downdraft again drove stench and even Kitten wrinkled her snout; mortals found themselves with watering eyes and burning noses despite the unguent, and Kel blindly produced another clean handkerchief, giving Irnai and Tobe first use. They had just recovered when Kitten spun round with a squawk followed by a trill at once annoyed and happy. Kel stared but there was nothing to see—until air rippled to disclose a scaly, multicoloured creature eighteen foot long, standing twenty feet behind them with what Kel would swear was a smile on its enormous face.

            I nearly had you, Skysong. Greetings, Godborn and Numair. The mind voice was unlike Kitten’s, though what the equivalents of depth and timbre might be Kel had no idea, let alone of pleased good humour. Daine and Numair, who’d jumped at the creature’s appearance, nodded.

            “Hello, Kawit.”

            Kitten flicked her tail. I was distracted by the stormwings. There was a punch to the statement that told Kel everyone heard it.

            Even so you should keep alert, though I grant they were being quite interesting. I did not know there is a new skullroad. That news will stir the Dragonlands. The great head swung to look at Kel and the children, who realised the dragon had no wings. Will you introduce your friends?

            Of course. Kitten drew herself up, tail neatly over one arm, and her mindvoice became proudly correct. Kawit, these are Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, Protector of the Small, and Tobeis and Irnai. Kel, this is Kawit Pearlscale, of whom I have told you.

            Huge eyes considered them, not infinite like the gods’ but with the depth of Quenuresh’s and Tkaa’s, only more so, and Kel knew Kawit was very old indeed. Shaking free from shock she bowed.

            “Greetings, ah, Mistress Pearlscale. It is our honour to meet you. Skysong has told us how much you have helped her.”

            Kawit seemed amused. I have not been Mistress Pearlscale in many an age, if ever. Kawit is name enough in these realms. Greetings, and to Tobeis and Irnai. I see horse magic and Shakith’s gift in them, and much godwork in you, Protector of the Small. May I ask where that title came from? And what gods you have been meeting? I heard you say you had seen the Black God’s face, which he does not show.

            Kel was unsure of Kawit’s status but saw Numair nod and knew there wasn’t much point trying to conceal things from immortals. She squared her shoulders. “The name was bestowed by the elemental of the Chamber of the Ordeal. The rest’s a long story, Kawit, so perhaps we might go indoors if there’s somewhere that suits?”

            Indeed. I have been granted use of a stableblock. It will be cold but I can warm it.  Her head swung. Yes you may, Skysong. Abandoning dignity Kitten scrambled up to Kawit’s back, and perched triumphantly where neck joined torso, trilling pleasure. She loves to ride there. Would Tobeis and Irnai also like to ride?

             To Kel’s surprise Irnai accepted immediately, climbing up with a boost from Numair. Tobe was less keen but wouldn’t be outdone and with Kel’s help settled behind Irnai. The dragon’s scent was musky dustiness, making Kel think of rock in the desert. As Kawit set off, spine swaying and making Tobe clutch at Irnai, Kel realised ostlers and other servants were gawking along the fence. Automatically she straightened, Yamani mask sliding into place, but realised wild rumours would soon be titillating those with a taste for them. There was nothing to do, and she wondered what else this strange Midwinter might hold besides the promised visit of far larger dragon. Numair came up beside her.

            “I was surprised by your offer to Barzha, Kel—we’ve no stormwing treaties, because they don’t attack the living. But things are changing, plainly, and the more I think about it the better it seems. It gives you an entirely legitimate edge with that wretched prophecy—my warmest congratulations for that—but this skullroad thing gives me the fidgets. I’ve never seen or heard anything so detailed about the Godwars.”

            “Do you know about this timeway?”

            “Not really, but seers say things like that. I think it’s because there’s only one past and present but thousands of possible futures, likely and wildly improbable—but some improbable ones do come to pass, and the timeway is where the futures that will be… I was going to say join but it’s more like collapse together, I believe. Akker, Irnai’s new friend, says he’s always thought of it like becks joining into streams and rivers until at the sea there’s only water. But as he tells it, until the last minute all the rivers are moving about and might split off again.”

            He grinned at Kel, whose head was aching as she tried to follow.

            “I told you prophecies hurt to think about. In any case, I was going to say I think I’d better come and see this skullroad myself.”

            “Of course, but you’ve seen the road, Numair—you built it! It’s just seven tauros skulls on the wall at the top.”

            “Even so.”

            Kel wished the tauroses weren’t attracting so much attention. Seeing them dead as a comfort to victims was one thing, having them echo something that had involved gods and dragons at war quite another. But her glumness was offset by a sense that with Queen Barzha she’d done something that mattered, placed another weight on her side of whatever scale it was that counted, and for now there was the radiant look on Tobe’s face as he realised he was riding a dragon.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten — Worship

17 December

 

The Midwinter session of the King’s Council and the Queen’s Ball were both on the first day of festivities, and less than an hour after the Council started a messenger came to summon Kel and the children. They’d collected their finery from Lalasa the morning before, and other outfits—a working Mindelan tunic for Tobe, with black breeches, and a velvet dress for Irnai. Lalasa had done simple but striking embroidery on the jerkins so they looked less like protective garments, and even for this they wore them. She’d also trimmed hair and recommended a cobbler where Kel bought both children sturdy boots. Giving them a once over she nodded and they followed the messenger down the corridor.

            Kel had not been amused two days earlier to be summoned by His Grace of Naxen and told the children would be required.

            “Why in Tortall are they needed, Your Grace?”

            The Duke’s eyebrows went up. “The Council are interested in them.”

            “Interested? Or merely curious?”

            He smiled. “More the latter, I confess.”

            “Not good enough, Your Grace. They are children, not toys.”

            The smile faded. “They have seen a great deal of concern to us, Lady Knight. As you mentioned in your report. The Council’s interest is not altogether idle.”

            Kel knew she wouldn’t win this argument though reason and propriety as well as kindness were on her side, and changed tack.

            “Can you tell me who will be present, Your Grace? I know the formal composition, of course, but not who is here. I am aware Lady Alanna holds the proxies of Lords Raoul and Ennor.”

            “Mmm, yes. Cavall holds Vanget’s, Padraig holds Ferghal’s, Numair holds Harailt’s, and the Wildmage holds Dunlath’s—Lady Maura was granted membership when she came of age last year, because of the treaty there.” Kel hadn’t known that and another reason for the grasping interest in New Hope clicked into place. “Baird’s here, of course, and Imrah, so besides myself, Myles, and Turomot—and your father, of course—there’ll be Blue Harbour, Disart, Haryse, Macayhill, Nond, Runnerspring, Stone Mountain, and Torhelm.”

            The last three names leapt at Kel and her Yamani mask stilled her face. “Runnerspring, Stone Mountain, and Torhelm are all coming?”

            “Yes, of course.” Gareth looked at her uneasily. “Torhelm always attends and the others are wealthy fiefs, you know—before we come to your business there’re issues concerning port duties and the like they have considerable interest in.” He tried a smile. “Actually, I’m rather hoping that’ll go more quickly than it might because everyone will want to get to the main event.”

            Kel didn’t smile. “Be that as it may, Your Grace, you should be aware I have met my Lords of Runnerspring and Stone Mountain once each, and both were foul-mouthed in the extreme. For myself I might tolerate it. Before my son and Irnai I will not.”

            He stared. “Oh come, Lady Knight, I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

            “Lord Burchard, whom I had never previously met, called me a bitch, a trollop, and a jumped-up merchant slut. He implied I was a murderer. It is true he had just learned of his son’s death in the Chamber, but I hear he continues unbalanced. Can you say otherwise?”

            Gareth looked shocked. “Well … no, I suppose not.”

            “Lord Carolan accosted me after a tilt during the Grand Progress, in company of his son and Sir Guisant of Torhelm, whose father I have never met. Sir Guisant told me I should be raped to death and thrown on the nearest midden. Sir Garvey and Lord Carolan laughed loudly, called me an upstart whore, and spat.”

            “Mithros!” Gareth was clearly appalled but Kel wasn’t impressed that the characters of those men came as news. “I knew they dislike the idea of female knights, of course, but I’d no idea they behaved like that.” Doubt came into his eyes. “I’ve never heard them speak so.”

            Kel’s voice was cold. “If you want corroboration of my word, Your Grace, I suggest you ask women. You might start with Alanna and the pages in training—I spoke to Fiannola of Linshart a few days ago about a verbal assault she suffered from Sir Garvey. He did not learn language and manners from his mother.”

            “Well, well. They are responsible for their own conduct, Lady Knight. I cannot stop them.”

            “Then I suggest you speak to His Majesty. I tell you that if they offer me insult, or either child whose presence you require, I will silence them however necessary and sort the rest out on the field of honour.”

            “Lady Knight! You cannot challenge a member of the Council!”

            Kel did not know it but her face went a dangerous white though her mask never wavered. “But they can offer insult at will? Your Grace, if one of them said such things to your daughter, in your hearing, would you let it pass because it was during a Council session?” She might as well ask him if he were a poltroon. “No? Then explain why I must do so.” There was silence. “Very well. Now, is there anything else?”

            He shuffled papers. “Ah, yes, actually. Properly, your petition about New Hope should be heard at Imbolc, but Tirrsmont is here and there are those who want the matter heard while you can both speak to it.”

            “Those being the three lords we have just discussed?”

            “Not only them, but yes, Runnerspring pushed for it.”

            “And will His Majesty agree?”

            “He may. There is a certain logic. Should it come to a vote do you know who would definitely support you?”

            Kel had of necessity done this maths. “Alanna and both proxies, Wyldon, Daine, and Numair with theirs, Baird, and Padraig. I have not discussed Lord Ferghal’s proxy with him but he doesn’t care for Tirrsmont’s record defending land he already holds. Neither does Nond.”

            He looked surprised but she wasn’t sure if it was because he hadn’t expected her to be able to answer or hadn’t known her northern support was so strong. Her confidence in him fell further.

            “Huh. Then you have a majority. You have my support also. Macayhill might vote with Runnerspring, Stone Mountain, and Torhelm, but I doubt Blue Harbour, Disart, or Haryse would.” He fiddled with papers again. “It is a curious petition, Lady Knight. The materials submitted clearly support your claim and I imagine that would pass as easily. Why not claim land and people alike and have done?”

            Kel’s anger faded into weariness. “I defend them, Your Grace, because they deserve defending and it is my duty. I don’t want to own them and I don’t want Tirrsmont or any other mercenary incompetent doing so either, especially while war threatens. We’ll have time enough to decide something as important as a new fief when Maggur’s dead.”

            “Hmm. Your appointment may be the best solution all the same.”

            “Not for anyone who actually lives there, Your Grace.”

            She’d left it at that and he had taken a deep breath. “There is also the matter of the Chamber of the Ordeal. The Council is aware of its, ah, role in sending you to Rathhausak. There’ll be questions.”

            Kel shrugged. “So long as they are civil, Your Grace. The elemental does as it will. None can change that.”

            He frowned. “True. But it’s all very irregular.”

            “So is necromancy.”

            “Also true. Still, the Council has been … exercised, shall we say? His Majesty also. And as you point out, it matters to Stone Mountain.”

            Kel knew it, and with considerable reluctance had spent the evening before the Council telling the children about members they hadn’t met and giving descriptions of Burchard of Stone Mountain and Carolan of Runnerspring. Now, as she and the children reached the doors of the Council chamber and saw them thrown back, she was braced against the need to defend the children.

            She was aware of Lord Burchard at once, pale faced and still, seated on the left of the open oblong of tables. He was flanked by Runnerspring and Torhelm, Macayhill beyond them and a space at the nearer end of that side. On the opposite table were Padraig, Wyldon, Lord Imrah, Nond, Daine, Numair, and Sir Myles. On the longer side away from her were King Jonathan and Thayet with Roald and Shinko, flanked on one side by Dukes Baird and Turomot, and on the other by Duke Gareth and Alanna, who rolled her eyes; in front of Kel was a wide gap, Blue Harbour and Disart on the left and her father smiling warmly at her next to Haryse on the right. There was a chair for her but nothing else and she reined in temper as she and the children bowed.

            Jonathan smiled greeting. “Welcome, Lady Knight Commander. Please be seated.”

            “Thank you, sire. Where should Tobeis and Irnai sit?”

            Torhelm, who looked like his son and had the same malice in his eyes, sat up from his slouch. “Children stand in the presence of their elders, and commoners in the presence of nobles.”

            She kept her voice even despite his insulting omission of any address. “Perhaps so, my Lord, but my son is not a commoner while Irnai is here because she is Chosen of Shakith. And both are here at the Council’s request for what may be a long meeting.”

            Torhelm sneered as she insisted on Tobe’s status and Thayet’s voice was sharp. “Of course, Lady Keladry—it was thoughtless of us. Your objections are uncalled for, my Lord.” She pulled a hanging cord and a side-door swung silently open to admit a palace steward.

            “Your Majesty?”

            “Bring stools for the children please, Erran.”

            “At once, Your Majesty.”

            It was only a few breaths before he returned and Kel wondered if it had been a test, sounding her response to indirect insult. Unthinking unkindness to the unimportant and stools the servants used themselves during their long waits seemed as likely. With the children seated she sat herself and the King invited her to give her account, voice dry.

            “Begin, if you would, with the vision given you by the Chamber of the Ordeal. Despite my own description concerns have been expressed.”

            Kel bet they had and the spasm that twisted Lord Burchard’s face told her by whom; but he said nothing while she narrated as clearly as she could her vision and recurrent dreams, then Rathhausak. She omitted the order she’d disobeyed, seeing approval in Wyldon’s eyes, and the smugglers—producing the first interruption, from Blue Harbour.

            “How’d you get across the Vassa?”

            Kel didn’t think The Whisper Man would care to be invoked, even here, but it went against the grain to lie. “Going north we obtained the use of boats, my Lord. Coming south, the army controlled the crossing.”

            “Use of boats, eh?” His look was shrewd. “Very well. Go on.”

            She did, but there were further questions from Imrah and Haryse, both experienced warriors, about the parties of Scanran soldiers they’d encountered, and how they’d been dealt with.

            Haryse looked grimly approving. “Hard when it’s like that. You did well to deal with the larger group. Not sure I understand about the horses, though—calling them, yes, but asking them to wait for you?”

            “Tobeis has horse magic, my Lord.”

            “So’s my chief ostler, but he couldn’t do that.”

            “Tobe?”

            He leaned forward to address Haryse properly, face determined. “I didn’t know they’d wait, my Lord, and if something scared them they’d have run off. But I asked and they agreed. They were hungry and the river meadows had good grass.”

            “Huh. No offence, but is the lad really that strong, Wildmage?”

            “It’s hard to say how strong he may become, but he’s stronger than Stefan Groomsman now.”

            Haryse whistled. “Is he indeed? You’ve a real talent, then, young Tobeis. Useful. Go on, Lady Knight.”

            Kel did, though the illusion and griffin-band generated questions and a digression into her standing order that they be worn by all at New Hope. The swift despatch of three killing devices also stirred questions, and for the first time Lord Carolan spoke.

            “You expect us to believe you killed three of those things in as many minutes?”

            “I shot one in its dome, my Lord, and the dog Shepherd snapped the shaft.” Did he understand why that mattered? “The broken end fell into the dome and the trapped spirit escaped through the hole. Fanche Miller and I shot another, and its own blades sheared the shafts. Sergeant Domitan’s squad immobilised the third with metal-cored ropes and he opened its dome with an axe.”

            “Two women and a dog killed two devices? It’s absurd.”

            Kel shrugged but Wyldon’s voice was crisp. “As you never faced one, Runnerspring, you’re hardly in a position to judge. Tell me, Lady Knight, how many devices have you personally slain? Besides them all, I mean.”

            Kel enjoyed the look on Lord Carolan’s face enough to make the embarrassment seem worth it. “Personally? Five.”

            “Five?” Padraig’s surprise was evident.

            “One at Forgotten Well last year, two at Haven in the spring—Master Numair knocked one down with a ton of logs first—and two at Rathhausak.” She remembered the stumbling gait and confusion and frowned. “One of those was odd—slow and awkward.”

            Irnai’s voice was dreamy; her eyes were not. “It was a girl called Frenna. She was simple and halt but the Kinslayer took her anyway. It was Ostara day. She went to gather flowers and was gathered herself.”

            There was an ugly little silence before the King spoke gently. “I am sorry to ask, Irnai, but tell us how you came to be at Rathhausak.”

            The girl’s words were the same as during Kel’s first report—the goddess told her to hide and run, guided her, and told her about the Protector of the Small. Lord Burchard had been fidgeting and at that name slapped the table, eyes glittering.

            “The goddess said, the goddess did—anyone can say such things. And that idiot title could come from anywhere. You expect us to believe this rot, Mindelan?”

            I am a lake. “I first heard the title from the elemental of the Chamber, my Lord. And Irnai is chosen of Shakith.”

            “I expect you to believe me, my Lord.” The King’s voice was cold. “And my Lord of Cavall, His Grace of Queenscove, General Vanget, and Master Harailt, as well as Lady Keladry. We all heard Shakith speak.”

            Beside Burchard, Torhelm’s face took on a cunning look. “You heard something, sire. Who can say it is a god when only a girl speaks, and a foreigner at that? No-one heard all these other instructions.”

            “It was Shakith.” Baird’s voice admitted no doubt. “I once heard Isner of Pearlmouth prophesy in that same voice. And Irnai lit up as Shakith spoke through her. Her hair stood out. There was no mistaking it. If we know she has spoken through her once, why doubt the rest?”

            “She glowed when she dedicated Shakith’s shrine at New Hope. The same voice sounded behind the chimes. Shinko and I can attest it, with many others.” Roald looked at Kel.

            “Hawks in the distance.”

            “Yes, that’s it.” Baird nodded at once. “Someone else described it like that too, I think.”

            “Many people have.” Numair’s face was expressionless. “Shakith’s voice is consistently described in all countries as like a hawk or eagle screaming, which is what I heard. And all the sounds of the great gods’ voices seem at a distance behind and within their speech.”

            “Da says it’s because mortals couldn’t bear them otherwise.” Daine’s eyes were mischievous, irritation beneath. “There’s no doubt. The stormwings heard the prophecy and Kawit sees Shakith’s Gift in Irnai.”

            Torhelm laughed derisively. “The testimony of animals! Worthless!”

            “And am I such a worthless animal, my Lord?” The King’s voice was deadly soft.

            “I didn’t mean that, sire.”

            “Then what did you mean?”

            “Stormwings, some foreign dragon no-one can see half the time. They add nothing.”

            Numair sighed. “You are talking of beings with millennia of experience, who have travelled and dwelt beyond the mortal realms and met the gods. Calling them animals is silly—they’re immortals.”

            “This Scanran tr—isn’t.’

            He’d bitten off the epithet but Kel was on her feet. “Lord of Torhelm, you stand against your King, your future king and queen, and six others here besides myself who heard Shakith’s prophecy or her voice at the dedications. Within the Court are another dozen at least who heard and saw. The Godborn tells you every stormwing heard the prophecy and a dragon sees Shakith’s gift in Irnai. So does the spidren-mage Quenuresh. And though you swallowed obscenity directed at a child your tone insults one who has suffered and done more to save Tortallans than any of us can imagine. If you continue in this manner I shall remove my son and charge to fitter surroundings. Need I do so?”

            Torhelm’s face bulged and the look in Lord Burchard’s eyes was poisonous, but the King spoke first.

            “You need not, Lady Keladry. The subject of Shakith is closed, and we thank her for preserving Irnai, to our great benefit. Please sit and continue from your swift destruction of the three killing devices.”

            The atmosphere crackled but Kel complied, and the help they’d had from villagers in the desperate night attack gripped the genuine interest of the majority. She simply said she’d killed Stenmun and Blayce, omitting all detail save burning the workshop, and compressed their exhausting, nerve-racking return into a sentence. Then it was building New Hope with immortals’ assistance, and when Quenuresh came into it questioning became widespread. Only Lord Burchard and his allies were silent, full of disdain, and those who’d met the huge spidren were drawn in by those who hadn’t. To Kel it was old ground, and she knew only experience of talking to Quenuresh would build trust; what did interest her was that Macayhill was listening intently and making notes. When the questions finally paused he leaned forward.

            “So at heart, Lady Knight, you trust these spidrens.”

            “I trust Quenuresh, and have no reason not to extend trust to her kin. But as I said, she is ancient among her kind and a mage—she admits she is unusual, and warned the observer sent by His Imperial Majesty it might be impossible to make peace with younger spidrens.”

            “Yes, I spoke with Master Takemahou before he left.” Kel was surprised by his correct pronunciation and her concentration sharpened. “But you think if communication can be established, and a treaty agreed, it will be kept?”

            “Without knowing the spidrens in question I cannot say, my Lord. Would you trust an unspecified mortal to keep his or her word? But I believe Quenuresh and her kin will keep the treaty, and have already observed it in full.” Kel wanted to avoid the whole business of the tauros attack. She knew the truth had not been given the Council, but at least five people present knew and she imagined Roald had been told something; in any case she couldn’t omit Quenuresh’s loyalty. “You know that in September we lost some farmers to a tauros attack? Quenuresh came at a run and killed the last—I heard her break its neck. She gave critical assistance afterwards, sensing the whereabouts of the survivor and helping save an injured warhorse until the Wildmage arrived.”

            “Helped how?”

            “It was down with a broken leg. She lifted its forequarters in webbing so it could drink.”

            “Remarkable.” Suddenly he smiled, making his narrow face much pleasanter, and she saw Lord Burchard scowl. “You give me hope, Lady Knight. We’ve had grave problems with spidrens at Macayhill.”

            Kel spoke carefully. “New Hope is of course under military authority but with permission from His Majesty or General Vanget you would be welcome to consult Quenuresh. She gave Takemahou-sensei as much help as she could, and I believe would do the same for you if you ask.”

            He thanked her sincerely, giving her hope in turn, and Sir Myles owlishly asked Tobe and Irnai how they liked Quenuresh.

            “She saved Peachblossom, my Lord, so I owe her big. Liking’s neither here nor there.”

            Kel managed to still her smile, but Sir Myles didn’t.

            “You consider yourself honour bound to her, then?”

            Tobe shrugged. “We all are, by treaty. But I love Peachblossom so I am especially, I reckon.”

            “And you, Irnai? Has the god said anything about Quenuresh?”

            “She showed me futures with her helping us and told me not to be afraid of her, so I am not.”

            “Helping how?”

            “As she has already done, with webs and climbing.”

            Sir Myles looked at Kel, eyebrows asking the question. She felt reluctant to discuss New Hope’s defences but something was required.

            “We have spidren-web nets stored on our alures, Sir Myles, to cast down as needed. And we discover old webbing is perfect for sealing shutters against winter winds.”

            “Aid both military and domestic, then.”

            “Yes. One of her kin also assisted in exploring the cave system. A spidren can climb where we cannot.”

            The King came in briskly. “So all in all, Lady Keladry, you report that the treaty is working well, and has stood up in the face of Scanran and immortal attack. That is very good news and we thank you for undertaking the experiment. There remains a question about what Quenuresh might do if other spidrens enter the Greenwoods valley, but that must wait on the event. Now, other matters.” He turned to Lord Burchard. “My Lord of Stone Mountain, you have repeatedly expressed concern about the elemental of the Chamber. I share your unease that it has behaved unusually, but it is plain it contributed significantly to killing the necromancer, for which all must be grateful, and I cannot see there is anything we can do whatever we feel. It does as it does and no man may command it. It was on this account you demanded we hear Lady Keladry and Irnai in person. Are you satisfied?”

            “Why?” Burchard was staring at Kel and for the first time she saw grief as well as hate in his eyes. “Why choose you, and kill my son?”

            She spoke as gently as she could. “I do not know, my Lord.”

            “But you have spoken with it, you conspire with it—”

            “I do not. It chose me and filled my head with a vision of the Nothing Man’s horror—a score of children dead in a pile. It has said it expressed the outrage of the gods. What conspiracy can you mean?”

            “It killed my son! And sent you of all people, who overset custom—”

            Kel cut off his rant before it could get going, trying to keep calm.

            “My Lord! Though Joren hated and sought to injure me I did not wish his death and have wondered often and long what happened in his Ordeal. I know you believe no woman should seek knighthood but the elemental has never shared that opinion—a dozen people here have Lady Knights among their forebears. And I too am disturbed by its behaviour—it is my life it has affected.” She took a breath. “Do you wish me to ask it why it killed Joren? I cannot promise it will answer, but I can promise to enter the Chamber a third time and ask.”

            “To ask it …”

            “Yes, ask it. It is a being of great age and intelligence—you have yourself spoken to it once, if not in words. By my experience, it would not seek to test you again. Shall I ask it? Will you accompany me?”

            “You are serious, Lady Keladry?” She couldn’t read the King’s face. “You would enter the Chamber again to question the elemental?

             “I am, sire. It works for us. Why should it seek our harm?”

            “Indeed. Well, Lord Burchard? I will second Lady Keladry’s offer, for I have thought for some while that I must myself speak with the elemental, if I can. Given your loss, it is only right that you join us.”

            “When?” Burchard’s voice was a whisper, his eyes almost blank.

            “This year’s Ordeals begin in three nights. Should it be before that, or after they are finished?”

            The question was open but Kel’s answer was instinctive. “Before, sire.” The King looked enquiry and her reason scrambled to catch up. “If there is anything of concern we should know before committing others to Ordeals. I was the last squire to face it, last Midwinter, and to speak to it, at Imbolc. I … I feel we should not delay.”

            “Numair? You have tried to speak to it since.”

            “And was told to take myself off as it had no business with me. I have no opinion, sire, but I’d trust Lady Keladry’s instincts. From your account of it speaking through Irnai it recognised you and Kel by name, but no-one else, and she has had more dealings with it than anyone.”

            “Will I be safe?” Burchard’s voice was hoarse.

            Numair shrugged. “I do not control the elemental, Lord Burchard—no-one does or can. But while it has killed and injured squires other than your son there is no record it has ever harmed anyone not undergoing their Ordeal of Knighthood. I don’t see why it should begin now.”

            The King nodded. “Very well, then—tomorrow afternoon. Lady Keladry, please attend me for lunch beforehand. Lord Burchard, meet us in the Chapel of the Ordeal at the first afternoon-bell, if you will. So that is settled. Now, other matters concerning New Hope. Turomot?”

            The Lord Magistrate inclined his head. “Sire. Lady Knight Keladry, are you aware a complaint has been filed against you by the Lord of Tirrsmont, alleging that you wrongfully denied him access to land he claims and offered insult?”

            Kel’s mind became very cold and clear. “I was not, Your Grace, but I am aware of the incident to which I imagine Tirrsmont refers.”

            “Mmm. The complaint is irregular—it was presented only yesterday, and lacks supporting documentation.”

            “If I may, Your Grace?” Lord Carolan’s face was pinched with anticipation. “My Lord of Tirrsmont waits without, that he may give testimony and the gross insult he suffered be properly redressed.”

            Kel’s heart sank but Turomot was frowning.

            “It is not a complaint to this Council, Runnerspring, but to the court. No hearing here can be appropriate.”

            Duke Gareth intervened. “Entirely true, Your Grace, but there are two relevant petitions that would properly come before us at Imbolc, from my Lord of Tirrsmont claiming New Hope and much beside, and from Lady Keladry, asking all petitions for New Hope to become a fief and claims for it be set aside until the area is discharged from military governance. At the cost of some impropriety we might deal with all now.”

            “It is more than impropriety, Naxen.” Turomot was stiff but not outraged, and Kel thought this was all rehearsed.

            “True, but I do not suggest you make a ruling of any kind here—only that the Council of necessity include Tirrsmont’s complaint in its deliberations. Of course, the outcome here is one you might properly consider in your own judgement.”

            “Very well.” Turomot inclined his head. “Lady Keladry, are you willing to agree that anything you may say here today be considered as evidence in answering this complaint? You are of course free to make additional submissions to the court.”

            “Entirely willing, Your Grace, and I do so agree. May I know the terms of the complaint?”

            “Of course.” He took papers from a pile and passed them to Baird to hand on. Lords Carolan and Burchard did so with neutral faces, Torhelm gave his habitual sneer. When they reached Kel she ran eyes down the neat legal hand. The opening was formulaic; the meat began on the second page with a claim of extensive surveying of the Greenwoods valley interrupted by war, and continued with an account of his attempt to enter New Hope as untrue as it was insinuatingly plausible, insisting on Kel’s ‘nervous inexperience as a green commander’ and a clash with Tirrsmont’s ‘experienced captain’ leading to a gross overreaction, denying a lord free passage of his lands and offering foul insult. Coming to the end she raised her eyes to Turomot’s, and conscious of scrutiny on all sides, friendly and avidly hostile, strove for calm.

            I am a lake. “An interesting piece of writing, Your Grace. I note my Lord of Tirrsmont does not explain why he came to New Hope, nor what demands he made.”

            “I noted that too, Lady Knight.” Turomot’s voice was always dust-dry but he sounded unimpressed. “Do you wish to make a response now?”

            She thought hard. “I think it might be better to deal directly with his evidence, Your Grace, but”—she looked at the King—“I would ask, sire, that you be prepared to cast a truth-spell. If my Lord of Tirrsmont repeats what he has written his evidence and mine will clash.”

            “Of course, Lady Keladry.” That was satisfaction in the King’s tone and Kel realised that while this was staged, it was not she who had been set-up. Lords Carolan and Torhelm didn’t seem to realise and Burchard was uninterested, eyes distant and face slack. The King pulled the cord and gave orders for Tirrsmont to be summoned, and in a few moments he entered, finery stretched over corpulence and head swivelling as he took in who was present. He was shown to the empty place by Torhelm and Kel realised there was no chair for him. His glance at her before bowing to the King was rancid with gloating.

            Kel kept silent, resting a hand on Tobe’s tense arm as Turomot took Tirrsmont through his account, spoken lies seamlessly matching those he’d written. His purpose in coming to New Hope he claimed as concern for his people ‘unhappily forced to shelter there’, drawing snorts from Alanna and Wyldon, but he ploughed on. When he said he wouldn’t repeat the obscene things she had shouted, Kel had had enough and rose.

            “I am perfectly happy to repeat all of them, should anyone wish, for I neither shouted nor used any obscenity, and do so swear. Sire?”

            Blue fire sprang from Jonathan’s hand to settle over Kel, flared white, and vanished. “You speak the truth, Lady Knight.”

            “Thank you, sire. My Lord of Tirrsmont, however, was discourteous from the first, and did use obscenity. He omits to say that his ‘experienced captain’, whose byrnie was dirty and rusted, ‘requested entry’ by shouting ‘Make way for his Lordship, you fools. Clear the road now’—addressed to myself, two uniformed captains, and senior civilian leaders. He also omits to say his son addressed me as ‘wench’, and denied he had attempted murder in the tilt but declined to swear it by gods’ oath. His Lordship’s own address to me was successively as ‘the so-called Lady Knight’, ‘girl’, ‘Mindelan’, twice, and ‘you harlot’.”

            “You lie!” Tirrsmont’s face was twisted.

            “I swear I speak truth. Sire?”

            The blue fire again settled, flared white, and vanished.

            “She does speak truth, my Lord. Which means you lie, and have lied in a sworn deposition to the court as well as in person to me and every member of this Council.” The King’s voice was cold. “You will do well not to lie again. And I give you oath-warning I will truthspell you at need.”

            Turomot took over. “I ask you again, my Lord. Why did you go to New Hope? You have filed no claim or notice of intent hitherto, as you should if you were surveying it so extensively. Why did you go there?”

            “I was concerned for the welfare of my people, Your Grace, nothing more. On my word.”

            Kel hadn’t bothered to sit. “Sire?” Blue fire swirled and rebounded, flaring scarlet. “He has no concern for his people, as General Vanget and my Lord of Cavall will attest. Those who were his are at New Hope because he refused them shelter, voiding all liege-oaths. He wanted miners as a work party to reopen silver mines closed by order of my Lord of Goldenlake and General Vanget, though he consulted neither.” She spared the scarlet-faced Tirrsmont one withering glance and moved from defence to attack. “It is for his demonstrated unfitness to rule that I oppose his claim, as does the northern army command and the great lords from Frasrlund to haMinchi land. The issue, my Lords, is not whether he should be given more to abuse and abandon but whether what he has should be taken away for gross dereliction of duties to his people, king, and realm.”

            “You godshat whore! I’ll have you—”

            I am a lake be damned. Kel had warned Duke Gareth, if not about Tirrsmont, and she was over the table in a second, Tirrsmont’s voice chopping off in a gasp as he stumbled backwards. She was vaguely aware of shouts but her attention was all on the man before her.

            “I’ve taken all the filth I will endure, Tirrsmont. If you again speak such vileness in my hearing or my son’s we will meet on the field of honour, where I will cut out your tongue. Do you understand?” He goggled, blood draining from his face. “Do you understand?

            There was silence until Wyldon’s voice came from behind, sounding oddly gentle. “I believe he does, Lady Keladry. And should he not, I will second your righteous challenge. I also concur that Tirrsmont should face an enquiry of noble competence, as does General Vanget.”

            “You what?” Lord Carolan’s eyes were popping. “Cavall, you can’t—”

            “Silence!” The King’s voice was raised but Kel’s eyes were boring into Tirrsmont, now a dirty white, breath rasping. “Lady Keladry, you have our apologies for the gross insult you were offered. Please sit.”

            Silently Kel did, ignoring her father’s look but letting Tobe and Irnai take her hands under the table. The King drew himself up.

            “My Lord of Tirrsmont, your behaviour here is wholly unacceptable, both in repeated perjury and in using blasphemous obscenity against a knight who has given this realm exceptional service. Nor can I ignore the strongly adverse opinions of your conduct in your fief that have been expressed over many months by my most senior commanders, my Champion, the Knight Commander of my Own, and many of your peers. Our first matter for a vote, then, is whether Arnolf of Tirrsmont should face an enquiry of noble competence. My Lords?”

            It was a landslide. Counting proxies, but with the royals and Duke Turomot abstaining, there were twenty-two votes and only Lords Carolan and Torhelm voted against. Lord Burchard seemed barely aware of what was going on and abstained by saying nothing. Macayhill expressionlessly supported the majority despite Carolan’s glare.

            “That is clear. Given your conduct, Arnolf of Tirrsmont, you will remain in royal custody until His Grace of Wellam convenes the hearing.”

            A double tug of the cord brought in a guard captain and two sergeants, armoured, armed, and clearly waiting. Something in Kel shivered as she wondered how deeply she’d been used and saw the sheer bewilderment on Tirrsmont’s face, as well as Torhelm’s loathing for her, and Lord Carolan’s; but Tobe’s simple satisfaction, and the faces of Alanna, Wyldon, Lord Imrah, Nond, and Disart, who’d said almost nothing, gave her pause. She hated dishonesty and drama but something had been achieved. As the doors closed the King was brisk.

            “Regardless of the outcome of that hearing, my Lords, it is clear Tirrsmont’s claim for New Hope must be summarily dismissed. Do any demur? Lord Carolan? Then it is so dismissed. There are also those other claims for it as a fief, and Lady Keladry’s petition for their dismissal until peace shall allow deliberation, with which she submitted compelling documentation you have seen. I ask that you vote on her petition, and considering that documentation and what we have heard of Quenuresh I add a rider by royal authority—that when the matter of New Hope’s status as a fief is considered, Lady Keladry’s claim, or that of her heirs and assigns, shall be considered first.”

            Kel was too busy parsing ‘heirs and assigns’—did he mean Tobe?—to do more than glare and the King took no notice. The vote was nineteen–two, and despite her surprise at Lord Burchard’s second silent abstention she managed to express thanks for the Council’s care of New Hope, though she wasn’t persuaded care or anything like it lay at the heart of what had happened. She found herself thanked in turn for all she’d done, and slightly mollified when the King extended thanks to Tobe and Irnai for all they had done and attending today. Then she was politely dismissed until the morrow, but as she rose her father requested he be excused from remaining business, and receiving permission accompanied them out.

            In the ante-chamber he spoke only once—“Your rooms I think, my dear”—but once they were there, and the children had escaped to her bedroom to play with Kitten, whom they found waiting impatiently outside her door, he enfolded her in a hard hug. When he let her go his face was a complex of emotions.

            “My dear, I am sorry you had to endure that. And the children. I realised yesterday something was in the wind but His Majesty forbade me to speak to you.”

            “It was all a set-up then?”

            “In essence—Vanget’s complaints about Tirrsmont have been savage—but not entirely, I think. Certainly the force of your reactions was not foreseen.” He shook his head. “For all my rage at his words my heart was in my mouth when you went after Tirrsmont so fast.” He hesitated. “Has it often been as vile as that for you, my dear? I knew you faced dislike and suspicion from the hidebound, of course, and about Joren. But these … sexual slanders, and the hatred in Torhelm …”

            She couldn’t lie to him. “It’s not new, Papa. I never let it bother me when it started, nor for a long time, but I won’t accept it in front of Tobe. I’d warned Duke Gareth I wouldn’t.”

            “Nor should you—I wasn’t complaining, my dear. It was splendid, actually, and I’m proud of you for defending yourself and my grandson, as you should. Under other circumstances … Council members may not challenge one another, of course, but that was not at issue …” His voice trailed away until he swallowed and looked her in the eye. “You have changed, Kel—you’re so much stronger—so disciplined and reserved, as you have always been, but then so forceful … I had thought it was your experiences of the Chamber and at Rathhausak. But you have changed again since I saw you at those marvellous dedications.” He swallowed. “I know something happened at New Hope, my dear, something bad, but even your mother will not tell me what it was.”

            Kel’s heart hurt. “I didn’t want to upset you, Papa, but yes, something happened. I …. met some gods. It changes you.”

            “You mean at the dedications? Lord Weiryn and the Green Lady?”

            “No. Yes. Them too. But I met the Black God, the Graveyard Hag, and the Goddess.” It was hopeless and she felt tears hot in her eyes. “Can you promise not to shout or anything? I don’t think I could bear that, and I am alive and well now.”

            “Of course you are. I won’t shout. My dear, please, what is it?”

            As barely as she could she told him, and his hands on her shoulders tightened painfully before he stood, kissed her forehead hard, and walked back and forth, fists clenched. She could see his distress and the control he was exerting and her heart quailed; when he turned back to her there were tears in his eyes but joy as well as horror and rage in his face, and his voice was wondering.

            “My worst possible nightmare, and you are alive. Strengthened and returned by the god himself. Without harm, however changed.”

            His hug was no fiercer than her own, and both their shoulders were damp by the time they released one another. Although she had dreaded his knowledge of what had happened she felt only relief and a singing emptiness, and knew exactly what she wanted to do.

            “Can you come with us to the Temple District, Papa? I wanted to thank Shakith for Irnai and the Goddess for myself.” Her smile was crooked. “I’ve thanked the Black God several times already but I’d like to do that again too.”

            “Of course. I’d have been going myself anyway.” There was a burst of laughter and an accompanying trill from Kitten in the bedroom. “But perhaps cleaning ourselves up and having lunch first would be an idea.”

 

* * * * *

 

The day was dry and intermittently sunny, and after the tensely seated morning they decided to walk despite the chill wind. Tobe and Irnai had cloaks among their acquisitions; Kel found the jerkin over her tunic sufficient, Piers collected his cloak from the office he maintained at the Palace, and Kitten, who chose to come, needed only dragonhide.

            It was a mile-and-a-half from Palace to Temple District, separated from the lower city by the Common, where herds and flocks grazed under watchful eyes. Leaving Palace Way as soon as they could they took the path across the half-wooded slope below the Palace enclosure, Irnai and Tobe running and skipping, while Kel and her father answered with a few evasions a lively barrage of questions from Kitten about mortal attitudes to the gods and why they were going to the temples today.

            It is very confusing. Kitten sounded resigned. Dragons fought a war with gods a long time ago, and my Grandsire said we now avoid one another. But when a dragon does have to meet a god, as Grandsire and I did, we just talk, though as I told you, Kel, gods seem very bad at listening. Mithros certainly didn’t listen to me properly when I scolded him for upsetting Mama. Dragons don’t do this worshipping the gods that mortals do. I understand you wanting to say thank you to the gods who have helped you—that is only polite—but why do more?

            Kel had watched her father’s eyebrows take several trips up and down during this but he answered civilly enough.

            “You must remember we mortals are mortal, Skysong. We do not live long by dragon standards, we are physically small and weak, and all but a few great mages, like Numair, weaker magically than any dragon. We are at the gods’ mercy and worship is a way of trying to gain favour.”

            I suppose so, but when Mama wants something from my grandparents she just asks them. It is much less complicated.

            “She is their daughter, Kit. It’s different for the Godborn.”

            But you say all the gods are parents to you. They do not seem to be very good parents. Oh look, Irnai has found the wildflowers she wanted.

            She scrambled off to help gather wintersweet and Kel’s father turned to her with a look of bemusement.

            “She scolded Lord Mithros? Do you know about that?”

            “A little.” Kel smiled. “It sounded rather wonderful. Daine said it was after she’d killed Ozorne and found herself in the Court of the Gods with all of them there. She’d been chasing him in bird-form so she was naked, poor woman, and Lord Gainel lent her his coat. Uusoae was banished by Father Universe and Mother Flame to a cage somewhere I didn’t understand, and Lord Mithros gave Daine a choice between remaining in the Divine Realms as a minor goddess or returning to the mortal realm for good. At some point Diamondflame and Kitten arrived—Daine says dragons go wherever they want—and when she thought she’d have to stay with her parents and leave her mortal friends she got upset and Kitten set about Lord Mithros. It must have been quite a sight.”

            “Glory, yes. I imagine Lord Sakuyo was amused. Did it do any good?”

            “Maybe. Daine does visit her parents sometimes, as they visit her, so the limitations on travel can’t be absolute, but whether it was Kitten’s doing I doubt. Unless Lord Mithros agreed in self-preservation.”

            Her father laughed. “She does talk nineteen-to-the-dozen, doesn’t she? But she’s always interesting, if sometimes alarming.” He shook his head. “A war between dragons and gods—Mithros! I’m glad that was long ago and now they just talk.”

            “Mmm. It’s odd, you know, Papa—the Godwars have come up several times recently.” She told him what Queen Barzha had told her.

            “You offered a treaty to stormwings?

            “I did, Papa. You know that phrase about wanting people in not out?”

            “Pissing out rather than in, you mean? Yes—and that’s appropriate for stormwings! Still. Does the King know?”

            “Numair and Daine do. And Numair saw at once why I did it.”

            “That wretched prophecy, I suppose. Your mother told me about it.”

            “Yes. I know in my heart that we’ll face a real fight at New Hope sooner or later, and I’m just trying to get every edge I can.”

            “Of course, and very well, my dear. I was only surprised. I gathered you met Kawit—astonishing creature! Did you try to recruit her as well?”

            Kel laughed. “No, though she’d be welcome if she wants. After Quenuresh we’d take her in our stride. I’m not sure about Diamondflame, though, all eighty-five foot of him. What do you think will happen when he shows up? Kitten says he’s promised to visit her.”

            “He has? News to me, my dear. Did you say eighty-five foot?”

            Cheerful speculation about probable reactions and what Master Oakbridge would consider proper dragon etiquette brought them to the guarded entrance of the Temple District, where Piers was recognised and Kitten, Kel, and the children scrutinised with interest. Her father made a point of introducing them and they talked for a few minutes to the guards, charmed to be spoken to by the dragonet. The main gates were nearer Palace Way and this side-entrance led them behind the temple of the Smith God and the smaller one of Harrier the Clawed to the main square where the temples they wanted clustered.

            Shakith’s temple was smallest, her great centre being in Carthak, but Kel liked the building, winter sunlight from high windows striping the interior. She felt no special indebtedness to the blind goddess but was happy to see Irnai skip forward to lay half the flowers she’d collected at the statue’s feet. An elderly priestess who sat to one side opened her mouth when she saw skipping but abruptly closed it, peered at Irnai, and stood, bowing. After she’d laid the flowers and reached a hand to touch the staff of prophecy, the girl looked at the old woman, face guileless.

            “She told me she likes wintersweet. I was hiding from the Kinslayer and there was a patch growing in front of where I was lying.”

            The priestess’s eyes went wide. “I did not know, Chosen. I will make sure we offer it more often.” A hesitation. “You are Irnai?”

            Irnai nodded.

            “You bless us with your presence, Chosen.” To Kel’s relief she added a more sensible invitation. “You are welcome here always.”

            “Thank you.”

            They went on to the temple of the Great Goddess, where Kel laid the rest of the flowers, sending thanks for being made whole. She felt a sense of warmth and benison, and when she stood and bowed to the statue, tracing the gods’ circle on her chest, there was a faint echo of hounds belling that brought a dozing priestess awake, looking around. Kel didn’t wait to offer explanations, but when they were outside again her father—who had given his own fervent thanks for his daughter’s life and health but felt nothing—looked at her piercingly.

            “She watches you still, then, my dear. It is a great comfort, if also something of a terror, I find.”

            “Tell me.” Kel smiled wryly. “I’m every bit as grateful as I should be, but to be honest I’d just as soon the gods had never noticed me at all.”

            I told you Grandsire said gods were annoying.

            “So you did, Kit, but I’m not annoyed exactly—I just feel very out of my depth with them.”

            And is that not annoying?

            Kel smiled. “You have me there. But there’s not much I can do.”

            That is annoying too. You are going to the Temple of Mithros now? I will wait outside. I am not giving him the chance to ignore me again.

            “Of course, Kit—that’s very sensible of you.”

            Laughing inside they entered. Flowers hadn’t seemed appropriate for the Lord of fire and war, but Kel had a tiny mageblast with its key that Takemahou-sensei had made, one of a stock in different sizes he’d left her, and hoped it would please the god who had commanded her return from death; she’d left another at his shrine in New Hope. The great polished sun-disc and flaring torches on the walls were familiar on a lesser scale from the Chapel of the Ordeal but impressed Tobe, who had his own offering—a horse he’d carved to ask for Peachblossom’s continued recovery and Alder’s and Kel’s safety in battle. They nodded gravely to watching priests before laying their offerings and praying together before the imposing statue, black skin, gold robes, and gleaming spear, with a strange expression as if he peered into distance. Kel’s prayer was simply for New Hope to be safe, keeping battle outside its walls, with a promise to do all she could to ensure it herself, and a request that if she were in any way failing she be upbraided in time to rectify the problem. She felt nothing like the warmth of the goddess but did have a sense of acceptance, and Tobe said he didn’t know if it had been acceptance, exactly, but had felt his offering was right.

            “That sounds like it.”

            Kel ruffled his hair and braced herself. The Black God’s temple was windowless in plain black stone, a striking contrast with the decorated whiteness of the other main temples, and the dark interior lit only by five tall candles by the hooded statue. She laid her offering—a tiny Yamani ihai, a spirit tablet made from New Hope’s limestone, that she had incised with her own name—and prayed. In Kel’s mind the face beneath his hood was clear; she thought she could never forget any detail of its beauty or infinite sadness, and her heartfelt wish for the god to find the solace he offered twined with pure thanks for her life and sparing her parents grief. She had brought a cone of the best incense she could find and lit it as she completed her prayer, gazing at the face that was not there. Wind soughed through the silence of the temple as candleflames sprang tall and straight; so did the flame on her incense and its rich fragrance spread everywhere. Comforted again, she stood and bowed deeply, thanking the god one more time and took the children’s hands as they followed her wide-eyed father back out. Blinking in sunlight Kel heard her name in a familiar voice and Alanna rose from a bench to saunter across, Kitten bouncing beside her.

            “Hello Tobe, Irnai. Piers. They said I’d find you here, Kel.”

            “I have much to be thankful for.”

            “Mmm.” Alanna’s gaze went past Kel. “Did the Black God speak to you, by chance? There’s some wild-eyed priests headed your way.”

            “Oh bother.” There was no getting out of it. “He didn’t speak but there was that wind sound and the candles flared. My incense, too. Give me a minute, would you?”

            A puffing, black-robed priest with the rank knots of authority tied in his belt approached, others behind with equally disturbed faces.

            “Forgive me, my Lady, but did you just make the offering the Black God accepted so decisively?”

            “I did, Your Reverence. Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, at your service. May I present Sir Alanna of Pirate’s Swoop and Olau, my father, Baron Piers of Mindelan, my son Tobeis, and Irnai of Rathhausak, Chosen of Shakith.”

            “Ah. Indeed. My.” All the priests bowed in many directions, trying for several at once so far as Kel could see. “I am Riellin, my Lady. I have the honour to be Third Priest here.” His eyes goggled. “The god’s response to you was spectacular.”

            He was obviously dying to ask Kel what she’d prayed for and while she had no intention of giving him a theological revelation that would have every priest of the Black God for miles around beating a path to her door she saw no reason not to say what she could.

            “Yes, it was. When we dedicated his shrine at New Hope his breath sounded behind the chimes, and when we dedicated the burial ground, so I know he watches over us and gave thanks. I prayed also he might find the comfort he offers—you might try it. He bears such sadness for us all, you realise?” A thought struck her. “Do you worship the Hag?”

            Riellin’s look combined bewilderment and panic. “Ah, no, my Lady. Lady Knight. Commander. We don’t. She is, ah, potent only in Carthak.”

            Kel shook her head. “Don’t you believe it, Riellin. She gets about and has a vile senseof humour, I warn you. The hyena’s a shock too. Now if you’ll excuse us, we have urgent business. Sir Alanna came to summon us from our devotions.”

            She bowed more deeply than was called for and swept away, arms round the children, hearing a priestly babble rise. Alanna and her father followed in silence until they had made it through the gate, where to the consternation of the guards Alanna wheezed to a halt and gave herself over to laughter, actually slapping her thigh as she rocked back and forth. Kel had read of people doing that in one of the absurd romances Neil recommended, but she’d never seen anyone do it and had thought it another ridiculous exaggeration. She watched with interest and eventually Alanna sobered, wagging her finger in Kel’s direction.

            “Kel, that was priceless. Riellin’s nice enough but a godly bore. He’ll be hopping in circles for weeks. I must tell Jon.”

            Kel shrugged, content Riellin should. “I expect they all will. The Goddess breathed too, when I thanked her, though I ducked questions there, and Irnai told a priestess Shakith likes wintersweet. You can expect the Palace gardens to be raided after the hillside’s gleaned.”

            Alanna dissolved in laughter again. “Three responses? Oh glory. Kel, Kel, Jon says Holloran already makes the gods’ circle whenever he mentions you. You’ll have all of them doing it.”

            “Only two, Alanna. Shakith didn’t say anything.”

            “She said hello to me but I knew the priestess hadn’t heard.” Irnai’s smile was as often far too old for her face but Alanna laughed yet again.

            “Quite right, Irnai. It’s awkward when that happens, isn’t it? Oh that’s a far better afternoon than I could have hoped for.” Still chuckling, she straightened and they began to walk back up the path.

            Kel frowned. “Did you walk down, Alanna?”

            “I did. There’s no urgency and I felt like getting out after this morning. I do have a message, though, which is that they did the draw for Ordeals. There’re six squires this year so it’s three nights before and three after Longnight. Owen’s on the first night after.”

            “Right, thank you. And Prosper of Tameran?”

            “Um, night after Owen. Did I know you knew him?”

            “I’ve no idea. He was with us when we fought those hillmen in my second page year and we’ve been friends ever since.”

            “I did know, then. I’d forgotten. I’m getting old. Anyway, what I really came for was to apologise for being so silent this morning, Kel—Jon wanted me to stay out of it and he had a point. It wouldn’t have helped if I’d told Stone Mountain or Runnerspring or that unspeakable Torhelm what I think of them. Again.”

            “I guessed it must be something like that, Alanna. Papa says he was forbidden to talk to me when he realised what was being set-up.”

            “Really? Jon leaned on you, Piers?”

            “He did, Alanna. Yesterday, when I heard Tirrsmont had filed a complaint and Runnerspring was planning to ambush Kel.”

            “Yes, that was icing on the cake. But I came to apologise and to congratulate you on the way you handled it all, Kel. Polite as you like in the face of considerable rudeness and then Bam! I’ve rarely seen a man change colour as fast as Tirrsmont, the poltroon. Jon’s been itching to take him down, but for the southerners and westerners it was all so far away until they heard him lie to them.”

            “I didn’t handle it, Alanna. I meant every word I said.”

            “Then I like the way you meant it.”

            “I don’t like being used, Alanna, and I’ll tell the King so tomorrow. If he wants me to do something he can command or ask it. All this, I don’t know”—she waved her hand—“hugger mugger does no-one favours. Tirrsmont is a poltroon but he should be tried fairly, not ambushed. And anyone supposed to spring an ambush should know they’re doing it.”

            “You tell Jon exactly that. I did, but he’s so much more complicated than he used to be. Though to be fair it has been a problem.” Alanna’s glance was shrewd. “Do you understand what you did this morning, Kel? Have you asked your father?”

            “We had other concerns, Alanna. I suspect you should know Kel told me what happened to her. Before anything else I must thank you with all my heart for summoning the Goddess.”

            “You did, Kel? Good for you.” Alanna clapped her arm. “I hoped you would but I didn’t think it’d be this soon. And you’re welcome, Piers, as Kel is. But tell her what she did, politically speaking, because I’m not sure she has a clue.”

            “Don’t you, my dear? I think what Alanna means is that you, um, broke the logjam that has delayed things in the Council for months.”

            “Years more like.” Alanna’s voice was a growl.

            “Well, yes. For the first time the military north—both haMinch seats, Cavall, Blue Harbour, and Frasrlund—voted with the Progressives against the Conservative west and south—and you pulled in Nond, Disart, and Macayhill. They’ll find it harder to go back than they might think.”

            “Too right. You’ve also given Jon a half-dozen nicely pointy things to use when he wants, including one that with luck will see that pig Voelden excluded from succession at Tirrsmont. Turomot will be delighted to require a gods’ oath he’s never sullied the field of honour.” Alanna grinned. “And if you don’t end up as Baroness of New Hope, Kel, I’ll eat my armet. Your petition worked beautifully but if you survive whatever it is that’s going to happen Jon’ll have you ennobled in your own right far faster than you can say ‘no’.”

            “What?” Appalled, Kel came to a dead halt. “Alanna, you’re joking?”

            “Not at all. Tell her, Piers.”

            Tobe and Irnai pulled Kel back into motion, Kitten bouncing beside them with what looked to Kel like a draconic grin.

            “I suspect Alanna is correct, my dear. From any sensible point-of-view a central northern fief with a stronghold like New Hope is a godsend, and from the King’s perspective he’d be reinforcing the border with someone Prince Roald likes and trusts who is our future queen’s oldest Tortallan friend.” He hesitated and Alanna wagged a finger.

            “Not yet, Piers.”

            “No. There are considerations I’m forbidden to mention, my dear, though I hope you’ll learn of them soon. But they help to explain why the King hasn’t ennobled you in your own right already. He wanted to, you know, and there’s considerable pressure on him to do so.”

            “There is?” Kel felt bewildered, though Tobe’s and Irnai’s hands were tight on her own. “From whom?”

            “From many sides, my dear, not least the lower city. I know you think of Miss Isran as a friend, but she was becoming an interesting voice in city affairs even before your report was published. You know what happened when you and Alanna arrived, and your conduct since has been widely and positively noticed. I would be surprised if a dozen people in the lower city were ignorant of the Protector of the Small.”

            “And they arrived today, drunk.” Alanna grinned widely at Kel.

            “Gah.” Kel hunched her shoulders. “I’m going to strangle that elemental. It’s ridiculous.”

            “Well, you’ll have a chance tomorrow. Rather you than me, frankly. More importantly, I hear you’re going to show off a new style Lalasa’s devised this evening and set all the court women by the ears. Do tell.”

            Kel would have screamed if it weren’t for the children.

 

* * * * *

 

After an early supper Lalasa came to help them dress, cheery and talkative, and by the time they passed her inspection even Kel had to admit they were all looking presentable. The flames hemming Irnai’s dress were vivid, and the sight of her fingering the fine material with a dreamy smile was warmth in Kel’s heart. So was Tobe’s scrubbed face atop his blue tunic with its owl and crossed glaives, fine light blue breeches, and shining boots. She even thought she looked well enough herself, thanks to Lalasa, and though she refused lip-paint did let herself be persuaded into eye-shadow that worked nicely. The freckles banding her cheeks had faded with winter and the blue-black traces Lalasa applied made her hazel eyes stand out.

            “There, my Lady. You look a picture, though I say so myself.”

            Kel wasn’t persuaded, but Lalasa had news of what she still teasingly called the Protector’s Maids and draft contracts for Kel to consider, modelled on their own curious employer-servant way of doing things. It had evolved when service as Raoul’s squire took Kel from Corus and Lalasa hadn’t wanted to work for anyone else save as a seamstress; now Kel would in effect be hiring these other women, nominally as maids, and providing capital to let them work for themselves, their wages being underwritten and the money repaid as tithes from profit. It seemed to favour her more than it ought and she argued figures, but Lalasa was clear the women liked the arrangement—employment in Kel’s service gave them status they could use and guaranteed income greatly mollified opposition from kith and kin. Kel did insist on greater generosity in a few places and for everyone’s sake a clause requiring review of wages and tithes at regular intervals with a rider that gave her freedom to deal with difficulties on an individual basis.

            “I’ll check these with Papa, but I think that’s all fine now. Oh, and I’ve been meaning to tell you—you should get a boost with the self-defence classes. I think I’ve persuaded Thayet to require every female servant at the Palace to be trained, in batches. I didn’t think you’d mind some royal patronage.”

            “Oh my Lady. That is good news.” Lalasa knew exactly what women might endure in the warren of the Palace, and beamed. “I do have an appointment with Her Majesty in a few days, but I thought it was another order—she’s been generous buying from me. The Princess and some of her ladies too.”

            “They want the best, Lalasa.” Kel’s sense of mischief tweaked her. “When you marry Tomas you should invite them to your wedding.”

            Lalasa’s scandalised pleasure at the thought and enquiries from Kel about the kind of wedding she wanted filled time until they set off for the Great Ballroom. Given the children’s excitement and likely crowds Kel had thought to arrive earlier than later, but there was already a sizeable queue of couples waiting to be announced, and from the noise many already inside. She could see Adie and Orie with Merovec and Ortien about to enter, so they wound up waiting with people Kel didn’t know or half-recognised from serving as a page and squire. Both she and the children attracted scrutiny and she saw eyes flicking from the Mindelan owl and glaives on her dress to those on Tobe’s tunic, but only the couple behind them bothered—or dared—introduce themselves. An evidently wealthy merchant and his cheerful wife, they were pleasant and interested in the children as well as Kel. They offered congratulations on her report, decrying necromancy, but didn’t harp on it when Kel asked instead about the merchant’s business. She did her bit for Lalasa’s friends, mentioning the shops that would open in the new year, and was gratified by his immediate promise to investigate.

            “Quality wares sell everywhere, my Lady. Carthakis and Yamanis don’t want our ordinary stuff any more than we want theirs—food excepted, at need—but fine work commands a price in both empires.”

            “Yes indeed, Master Orman. I know that from my time in the Islands—there were always exotic things available.” A thought struck her. “Would there be a market for unusual stoneware, do you think—for storage or display? Up at New Hope we’re mostly dealing in necessities, thanks to the war, but our basilisks can petrify wood so anything our carpenters can turn we can render in stone.”

            “There certainly would, my Lady. New Hope is the fort that replaced Haven? Mmm—there’s not many willing to travel so near the front but I’ll send someone to see this stoneware, if that is acceptable.”

            “Very much so. We’re in a military area, so your man will need travel papers from General Vanget or my Lord of Cavall. He’s here for Midwinter so I can ask him to issue them as soon as you know whom you might send. And I can have an escort meet them at Bearsford.”

            “That’s very kind, my Lady.”

            “It’s to our advantage, Master Orman. We’ve so little it’s not easy, but the more we do ourselves the less the burden on army and realm.”

            She couldn’t make out his look as he nodded. “I would more nobles thought so, my Lady. And commanders. All else aside, it’s to my advantage as well—the loss of northern trade these last two years has been felt, and you’ve something new to offer. Fine basilisk stoneware—I can sell that! Does the wood grain stay visible?”

            “It can—depends on what the basilisks want to do.” Her mischief surged again. “And if you don’t mind dealing with a friendly spidren you can swap cheese for the best insulating material I’ve ever come across.”

            She let Tobe explain how useful old webbing was and watched as suspicion she’d been pulling his leg faded into thoughtful consideration.

            “The Carthakis might be interested if it seals against dust-storms and there’d be Gallan and Yamani markets. Did you say cheese?”

            “Spidrens really like it—ours do, at any rate. All kinds, but blue especially, and strong goats’ milk ones. They might want other things too, or money to get them. Your man can ask when he comes.”

            “I’ll think on it right enough, my Lady. Be sure of that.”

            The encounter left her cheerful as they reached the doorway and she gave their names to the servant announcing each arrival. His glance was keen.

            “Rart-howsak? Is that correct, my Lady?”

            “Irnai?”

            The girl looked up at the man gravely. “More Rraat-hausac, sir.”

            Her courtesy produced a wide smile. “Rraat-hausac. Got it. Do you prefer Sir or Lady Knight Commander, my Lady?”

            “Lady Knight.”

            “Military rank is always included.”

            Kel had been watching announcements through the door and none seemed to make much impression on the crowd, but when she and the children stepped in heads turned.

            “Lady Knight Commander Keladry of Mindelan, with Tobeis of Mindelan and Irnai of Rathhausak.”

            The weight of attention was palpable but her arms were round the children’s shoulders and she could see her sisters and in-laws with her parents—both in marvellous kimonos—and Alanna. Ignoring the buzz that rose she headed for them, thinking how striking Alanna looked in a dress that matched her eyes but halted abruptly as three burly forms swung out to block her path. Torhelm was clearly already the worse for drink, face mottled; flanking him his vile son, Sir Guisant, and Sir Garvey of Runnerspring wore identically malicious smiles of anticipation. Her hands tightened on the children’s shoulders.

            “So you bring your Scanran bastard even here? Shameless bitch.”

            Whether Torhelm had pitched his voice to carry or was just shouting drunk Kel couldn’t tell but it hardly mattered. Gut tightening and mind chilling with rage she drew herself up, one hand squeezing Tobe’s shoulder, and in her peripheral vision saw Alanna starting towards them, red-faced with purple fire beginning to spark in her hand.

            “Are you entirely stupid, Torhelm? If Tobe were my natural son I would have borne him when I was nine.”

            “Wouldn’ta stopped a slut like you.” Three pairs of eyes gleamed at her, like animals’ at night. “And if you think you’re getting away with your bitch slanders on Tirrsmont, think again. He’ll cut out your tongue and your coyne too before we’re done with you.”

            Kel’s vision was hazing with red that sparkled silver but huge effort kept her voice level. “I think His Grace of Wellam will act as he judges in the realm’s best interests, Torhelm. You’re stupid drunk already and if you’ve the least sense you’ll leave, now. I give you fair warning I’ll—”

            “You warn me, you arrogant cow? Any real man would cut your bitch’s head off and piss down the stump. You’re not even worth swiving. Gods know how you’ve whored it so high. From what I hear even a tauros ran away—didn’t have a bag to cover you with I suppose.”

            He roared laughter, drowning his son’s and Garvey’s sniggers, and Kel’s vision edged everything silver. As time slowed she watched his open mouth, lip trembling and droplets of spittle exploding into the air. His teeth were crooked and his tongue discoloured with the wine he’d been drinking. Somewhere thunder pealed and hounds whined.

            “Or you ran away fast enough, mebbe, when you saw a real pizzle. Oh yes, we know the truth, how you left your so-called people to it and ran.” The drunken face took on a look of cunning. “But you coulda taken it easily, by all accounts—you must be as slack as an old shirt by now, all the whoring you’ve done. Lady Knight be cursed—you’re a bloated bitch who’s whored Tortall to the dogs. If the gods gave a flying shit about us that tauros woulda swived you dead.”

            Thunder pealed again and hounds bayed. Time released her speech.

            “Angors of Torhelm, you are as ignorant as you are blasphemous and malicious. Six tauroses we killed. The seventh did rape me, and I died of it.” She was distantly aware of confusion warring with startled pleasure in Guisant’s eyes. “In a space I cannot describe I met the Black God, who forgave me and at the command of Lord Mithros returned me to the world. By the grace of the Lady Alanna I met the Great Goddess and was healed in my womanhood. If you are wise you will go to your knees and beg the gods’ forgiveness.”

            Something had driven Guisant and Garvey back a pace but Torhelm was too drunk or crazed to realise and his laughter roared again as the torches in the wall sconces flared with candles and oil-lamps all round the room, and the crystal mage-lights above dimmed.

            “Gods this, gods that—you’re a gods’ fool, bitch. P’raps you swived them too, eh? Gave Mithros a jiggy ride in that slack coyne of yours.”

            Kel’s hand rose to her chest and began to trace the gods’ circle. “I, Keladry of Mindelan, swear I have spoken truth and call on Lord Mithros, the Great Goddess, and the Black God to witness it.” Her hand stilled and the sky waited. “And I ask that for his vile blasphemies and falsehoods this night Angors of Torhelm be stricken dumb and halt for a year and a day, that he may consider the peril in which his soul stands.”

            Her hand moved on and the air heaved. Every flame leaped tall and silver and voices rang amid cresting thunder, clashing arms and cries and belling hounds with the winter wind soughing through them all like a gale.

            Heard and Granted. Heard and Granted. Heard and Granted.

            Kel felt only pressure as air thickened and pulled the trembling children closer to her, hands tightening on their shoulders, but Guisant and Garvey were bowled backwards, faces slack with terror, and Torhelm dropped like a felled steer, one hand clapping to his throat and the other his right leg. The sound he made was a mewling version of the death-scream of the women who’d died by the tauroses and from the smell Kel knew he’d voided himself. Her mind burned clearly in the gods’ presence and her voice rang through the Hall.

            “So is your blasphemy answered, Angors of Torhelm. Think on it as you limp in silence. You will have no second chance.” Pressure eased and the mage-lights half-brightened again as flames guttered. Kel’s head turned smoothly to meet Master Oakbridge’s eyes, wide and shocked where he stood inside the door. “Master Oakbridge, this lord and these knights require assistance to leave, and there is soil to clear, I believe.” She smiled gently. “I fear the torches and candles need renewing also.”

            That distant part of her had never appreciated the training of protocol more as Oakbridge jerked and bowed. “At once, my Lady.”

            He didn’t need to signal—the servant at the door and others came nervously forward with pages, bowing to Kel and the children before hauling a whimpering Torhelm and the dazed knights to their feet and dragging them roughly out. As a maid came scurrying with bucket and mop Kel saw Alanna staring from a position half-way towards her parents and sisters, blurred behind her, but waited until the shaking woman had mopped Torhelm’s mess and dropped to her knees to polish the floor. A white face peered anxiously up at her.

            “Is that alright, my Lady?”

            “It’s fine.” Extending a hand Kel grasped her arm and effortlessly lifted the woman to her feet. “I thank you, of your kindness. Go with the gods’ blessings.” Looking up she saw beyond Alanna a path extending to the foot of the throne-chairs on the dais at the end of the room, with Jonathan and Thayet as arrested as Alanna. All around pale faces hung suspended. Her voice rang again, full of an ease she truly felt.

            “Your Majesties, I can make no apology for the drama—Lord Angors and the gods’ were responsible for that—but I am sorry for the delay. I was bringing the children to present to you.”

            They walked beside her as she went forward, Alanna stepping aside, purple eyes wide, then falling in behind with her parents. The crowd clearing like scuffed leaves.

            “My adopted son, Tobeis of Mindelan, Your Majesties, and the seer Irnai of Rathhausak, Chosen of Shakith. Without them both my mission to Scanra could not have succeeded.”

            Prompted by the comfortable skirt of her dress she curtseyed, feeling Irnai follow as Tobe bowed. Jonathan’s face was unreadable.

            “Lady Knight Commander, no apology is necessary save Ours for the obscene insults you have suffered from a drunken guest here, and the gods have shown what they thought of that. Lord Angors of Torhelm is summarily dismissed Our Council, and he and the knights of Torhelm and Runnerspring who stood with him are banished Our court.” He gestured aside and a uniformed sergeant of the guard shook himself and headed briskly for the door. “Tobeis of Mindelan and Irnai of Rathhausak, yet young you have each done Us great service, and We honour you both. Lady Knight Keladry, Our indebtedness grows daily and We hereby recognise the title the Chamber of the Ordeal bestowed on you with the gods’ blessings—Protector of the Small, who cannot defend themselves and whom you champion, even as Lady Alanna champions Us.”

            Kel didn’t even blink though something inside her sighed resignation. “You are generous, sire.” She turned to Thayet. “I am sure the gods intended no disruption to your ball, Your Majesty, and I am sorry for any I have occasioned.”

            “There has been no disruption, Lady Keladry, only welcome justice and blessings.” The mage-lights brightened to the full at Thayet’s words and Kel was aware of servants replacing candles. “Share with Us now a grace cup, if you will.” From somewhere a liveried servant appeared at her elbow with a great two-handled golden goblet and a fine lawn napkin. “We give thanks to the gods for their witness and judgement, and to Lady Knight Keladry for her great services and mercy.”

            Thayet drank, wiped the lip, and passed the cup to the King, who did the same and passed it to Kel. To her relief it wasn’t wine but warm, spiced apple-juice, and after wiping the lip herself she passed it to Tobe, making sure he had it securely. He was equally careful passing it to Irnai, and the liveried man took it back with a bow.

            “Lady Knight, you have yet to greet your family.” The King’s voice was velvet. “Be at ease with them now, and with all.”

            He gestured with both hands and conversation grew as people began to break shocked entrancement and move normally again. Alanna softly clapped Kel’s arm as she turned, a muttered ‘Very well handled’ audible only to her and perhaps the King, and she found herself enfolded by her father’s arms for a  second time that day, then her mother’s, and to her surprise her sisters’, both with tears in their eyes. Her own were dry and the sense of inward ease continued though somewhere emotions were clamouring and the wary wonder on Ortien’s and Merovec’s faces was disturbing. She was pleased though to see them talking to Tobe, and her sisters to Irnai, as her mother slipped an arm round her waist and turned her to see the King and Queen in a half-circle with her father. Everyone else was keeping their distance and Thayet’s voice was low.

            “Keladry, I am so sorry you were confronted by that vileness and as amazed as we all are at what you and the gods did. Alanna and your father have told us how they responded to you this afternoon in the temples, and now this. They watch you very closely.”

            There was a question under her words and Kel shrugged slightly.

            “They do seem to, Thayet, but your guess is as good as mine. It’s New Hope and the war, plainly, and this timeway thing Queen Barzha mentioned—but she thought even the gods could only wait and see and Daine’s parents said the same. I think they’re just making sure the people they want to be there get there safely for whatever it is.”

            “You’re very calm about it, Lady Knight.” The King’s statement was a question. “Even Alanna is not so poised when the Goddess has spoken to her, and you saw Irnai when Shakith made her a mouthpiece.”

            Kel felt herself smile—Alanna was often uncalm but she didn’t say that. “I don’t think divine power passed through me in the same way, sire. It struck Torhelm directly but we were shielded. I believe the Goddess bestowed a gift of ease. I am surprised myself but I feel calm.”

            “Then you are the only one. Forgive me—was that judgement yours or the gods’? The voice was yours but the words were ancient.”

            Kel considered. “I don’t rightly know, sire. I was seeing red—literally—but everything was edged in silver and moving so slowly, as in combat sometimes. I was tracing the god’s circle and I paused and the words I spoke came to me. I think it was me—I read something in which a mage did that to a man who offended and it seemed right.” A thought struck her. “I’m sorry if it causes you political difficulties.”

            “I’m not, Lady Knight, and you shouldn’t be. It was better justice than I could achieve, and far swifter. I’m delighted to have him gone.”

            Thayet’s gaze had moved over Kel’s shoulder and her eyes widened. “As are we all. But we’re going to have to put this off until tomorrow, Jon—the dragons are here.”

            As she spoke Kel heard gasps and turned to see Numair in best robes, Daine in a dress like her own, Kitten with a beautiful silk bow and ribbon round her neck, and, dwarfing them all as she constricted herself to pass through the doors, Kawit. The servant’s voice rang out.

            “Master Numair Salmalín, Veralidaine Weirynsra, Wildmage, and the dragons Skysong and Kawit Pearlscale.”

            Kel heard the King’s and Queen’s breaths as they started forward with smiles of welcome and was overcome with amusement harder to conceal than the distress everyone expected from her would have been. She almost wished Quenuresh were here too, and Kuriaju and Amiir’aan with St’aara, but there was Tkaa, greeting his distant relations in that carrying whisper and skilfully drawing in a couple to whom he’d been talking—Master Orman and his wife. Kawit’s sheer size and length of tail made for odd patterns as people skirted her but normal conversation slowly resumed and then rose rapidly to a great buzz. Her father rested a hand on her shoulder.

            “They will be talking about it all for longer than that year and a day, my dear. Are you really alright? I am sure divine power did move through you—your voice as you cast him down …”

            “I feel fine, Papa, truly. I think I might not later but I’m fine now. We should rescue the children from Orie and Adie.”

            “Or them from the children, maybe.”

            It was true that Tobe and Irnai seemed to be holding their own, faces shining as they chattered and took her sisters, fascinated and reluctant, to meet Kitten and Kawit. Kel and her father began to circulate, greeting those they knew—lords of the Council, in whom the morning’s respect was fused with startled wariness, save for Wyldon, who gravely kissed her hand, offering his apologies for not having been able to warn her of the planned ambush; the Yamani ambassador and his wife, who gave Kel bows of respect to Sakuyo’s Blessed and to her relief wanted to talk about glaives rather than what had just happened; a pensive Lachran, stealing a moment from duty after he’d brought them fresh juice and eyeing his aunt with wonder until Kel turned their conversation to his training; and various other Mindelan or Seabeth-and-Seajen relatives, who goggled deference Kel found tiresome. Piers also introduced her to scores of new faces—ambassadors, Yamanis and Carthakis at the Tortallan court for one or another reason, merchants in the Emerald Ocean trades, guildmasters with their wives and older children, and others who ran Corus, from the Lord Provost and senior Dogs to Wardsmen from the city council. Kel’s head swam trying to remember them all but she said the right things, passing over the divine but making positive reports of the war and the strength of New Hope’s defences, lodging its name in their minds as a place with people, and making tart remarks about how much those who’d refused to accept them had deprived themselves. After the fourth discreet enquiry from an avid wife about her dress she had to concede Lalasa had been right, and happily directed custom her way while discreetly warning that Her Majesty and Princess Shinkokami had priority but adding that Lalasa’s growing custom had brought other seamstresses of exceptional quality into her employ.

            It was a relief to reach Daine and Kitten, beside Kawit in a corner to which the opal dragon had courteously retired, crouched with her tail furled neatly around her forelegs. Daine’s pregnancy didn’t show beneath the loose fall of the dress and she grinned.

            “Isn’t Lalasa a marvel? I couldn’t stand the tighter dresses I had and she whipped this up in a jiffy.” Irony entered her eyes. “I felt the gods arriving clean over in our rooms. Kawit too, and Sir Myles told us what happened. Good for you, Kel—Torhelm’s always been disgusting and I’m only sorry I missed it. Are you alright, though? You’re looking wonderful but it must be costing you plenty.”

            The Goddess’s power yet lingers within her, Godborn, and soothes her distress. Kawit’s great eyes turned to Kel. You are a most unusual mortal, Keladry. Mithros has always had a temper to strike down those who cross him, but for three to strike together and the Black God among them is a rare departure. May I ask if they spoke to you?

            “They didn’t, Kawit, nor even through me, I don’t think. Their voices just sounded from the air, so far as I could tell, and their words were only ‘heard and granted’, like a chorus.”

            They are ever secretive, even when there is no obvious need.

            “And dragons aren’t?”

            Kel could hear amusement in Kawit’s mindvoice.

            It depends on the dragon, but not in the same way. Save in our first centuries we are less playful, as a rule, and our anger far more direct.

            “The gods were pretty direct with Torhelm this evening.”

            Indeed. Perhaps they learn wisdom at last.

            Kel knew better than to accept that gambit and the children’s return with her mother helped the conversation to less charged matters. Sophisticated finger-food was being served and identifying the ingredients for Tobe and Irnai and watching them sample Kmiri, Carthaki, and Yamani delicacies scattered among the Tortallan became an adventure in itself. When Tkaa joined them they saw he was munching from a bowl of stone fragments .

            “Black opal matrix,” he explained to a fascinated Tobe. “Queen Thayet knows I have a taste for it, as many basilisks do, and is kind enough to indulge me. I fear you would find it indigestible. A whole opal would serve you better.”

            The conversation wound to power stones and their uses, Daine telling the children about the mage-barrier at Dunlath that had been anchored in black opals, her friend Brokefang and the wolf called Short Snout, another cheese lover, before ending with Numair turning an enemy mage into a tree and subsequently searching for a year to find the tree he had in necessary balance turned into a man. They listened happily, asking sensible questions, and when she saw eyelids drooping Kel gathered them and they made farewells. When she had them safely tucked up Kel was at last able to close her bedroom door behind her and try to take stock of her emotions.

            The Goddess’s ease was still present, she thought, a warm cushion, and the passage of divine power certainly hadn’t harmed her, but below it all she knew a great bruise spread from the obscenities Torhelm had spewed, hammering relentlessly in language and thought at the lack she felt most keenly and the convictions of unattractiveness Lalasa’s dress had briefly assuaged. His careless mention of the paradox that had always run through such obsessively sexual insults, making her at once too ugly for any man to desire and the most successful spread-legged jade lurid imaginations could conjure, had been a greater knife in her heart than his cruder language, though she didn’t really understand why. She’d felt the lone cow among his bitches and whores too, almost sadly, as if it were a confirmation though she knew it was only an echo of Joren’s childish malice. As she cleaned her eyes of the colour Lalasa had applied they were wet but she wasn’t sobbing, just leaking heartfelt sorrow. Could she do nothing without lords she barely knew brandishing the mysteries so relentlessly closed to her? To the understandable reluctance of men to attempt a woman who could throw or decapitate them was added an equally understandable reluctance even to consider one who might call massed gods to strike them down if they displeased her—for nonsense as it might be Kel knew enough about gossip to have a sure sense of how the tales of this night would be told and retold.

            When she had put on her nightshirt, blown out the candle, and climbed between the cold sheets tears were still slowly welling and she thought it would be a long time before she slept. But within minutes she was amid her dream of the Islands, running with Yuki and Cricket in spring sunlight through the great gardens of the Imperial Palace and seeing the marvellous new blossoms limning the Emperor’s flowering trees in white and pink glory.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven — Lordship

18–31 December

 

Kel’s lunch with the King was not what she’d expected. Instead of Thayet or Shinko their companions were Roald and a grumpy Numair, who clearly didn’t think he needed to be there. Nor, after brief remarks as he led her to private apartments she’d never seen, did the King talk of the previous evening—his concern was entirely with the elemental.

            “It is a foundation of the realm, Lady Keladry. Its incorruptibility is critical. Forgive me, but it has never before shown such favouritism, and the double failure of three years ago still has people on edge.”

            Kel blinked. “Favouritism? Forgive me, sire, but that’s … not accurate.” Telling him it was complete rot didn’t seem wise. “Do you call it favouritism when you send the nearest capable servant to unblock a drain? I have no idea how the elemental really perceives time—I asked it when I would meet Blayce and it said something incomprehensible about mortals being fish in a bowl who see nothing beyond, while it is the beyond and sees everything at once—but the fact is, mine was the first year of squires to face ordeals after the killing devices appeared. It picked someone as soon as it knew someone was needed, that’s all.”

            “Mmm, perhaps so. But it picked you, Lady Keladry.”

            “It didn’t have a large choice, sire. There were only six of us, and of those one was no use to anyone—you know about Quinden, I imagine.”

            “Quinden? Oh, Marti’s Hill. Vanget dismissed him, didn’t he, with a snorter of a letter.”

            “I haven’t seen the letter but he certainly dismissed him, with cause. So in effect there was me, Neal, Seaver, Esmond, and Faleron, who all came with me anyway.”

            “And you are the outstanding commander—the only commander—among them. Yes, alright—I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

            “Because you were distracted by my being a woman, sire? I did tell you the elemental gave no sign of even recognising the fact, let alone caring. It’s interested in results, not mortal prejudices.”

            Roald ghosted a wink. “I told you too, father. Kel’s plainly the outstanding knight of our generation and while I like the others of her year well enough, except Quinden who’s an ass, she must have been first choice. And I’m very glad she was because she did do what had to be done and I don’t think the others would, not so quickly anyway. I saw those devices on the battlefield and I’ve never seen anything worse.”

            “I can’t argue with that, Roald, but being in the north so much you don’t realise how difficult this business has been politically. The death of Joren was bad enough—having his principal target treated so differently by the Chamber has compounded it severely.”

            Kel felt her temper spark. “I imagine it has, sire, but again, that is not the elemental’s concern, nor should it be. I know no more than anyone about why it killed Joren, but as he was a hate-filled and cruel boy who would have been an appalling knight and tyrannical lord I’m not complaining. And yes, there’s friction as women reassert themselves after a long period, but it wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for a fat handful of lords who despise anyone they think weaker than themselves and like demeaning women. Frankly, sire, while I understand that as a voting block in the Council they slow the progress you can make, I’ve never understood why you seem to respect their prejudice so much.”

            The King’s voice took on an edge. “It’s more than a handful of lords, Lady Keladry, and their prejudice has deep roots.”

            “Is it, sire? Most knights who challenged me during the Progress were set on by Joren. One was Tirrsmont’s son, another Torhelm’s. How many people causing you problems are independent of Stone Mountain, Genlith, and Runnerspring?”

            The King said nothing but glared at Numair’s muttered ‘None’.

            “As to deep roots, again, I’m sorry but I disagree. I’ve had reason to study the history of women in Tortall very carefully, and I can find no sign of the restrictions some people claim as traditional before the rise of that ridiculous cult of the Gentle Mother in the third century. It found champions among over-pious nobles, like Baylisa of Disart, but it’s hard to discount baser motives—she was involved with that Duke who was executed after the mages’ revolt. It grew during the reigns of Roger II and Gareth, as an opposition focus. It’s never had significant popular support outside fiefs whose lords enforce it as a justification of their own policies, it doesn’t make sense below the middle classes, where women necessarily work hard, and you barely hear of it these days—they haven’t replaced their leader since the last one was killed in the Immortals War. Besides, the Goddess showed plainly what she thinks of it when she chose Alanna.”

            Numair sighed. “You’re completely right, Kel, and I’ve told him all that before. So has Sir Myles. And you’ve accelerated change among the middle-classes and nobility. Honestly, Jon, you ought to get behind the landslide, not wave your arms at it hoping it’ll stop. If you didn’t feel bad about forbidding Kally knight-training because the Carthakis wouldn’t like it you would have, long ago.”

            Kel was fascinated by such an analysis but the King clearly wasn’t and crossly wrenched discussion back to the Chamber.

            “We must deal with Joren’s death first, Lady Keladry, then I want Lord Burchard to leave. Inviting him was a superb move and might lance this thing cleanly, depending on what the Chamber says, but there are things I want to ask I’d as soon he wasn’t privy to.”

            “If it says anything.” Numair was twisting a ring. “It wasn’t interested in our concerns about Shakith.”

            “Yes, yes, but Lady Keladry wasn’t there. It won’t ignore her.”

            Kel shrugged. “We’ll find out . May I ask what things, sire?”

            “Bluntly, whether it intends to give anyone else such a task as it gave you, and if so whether it’s willing to let us know. I don’t want to interfere with it—I meant what I said about its incorruptibility—but suppose one of this year’s knights or next’s does something against orders and says he was just doing what it told him?”

            It hadn’t occurred to Kel that someone might falsely claim special privilege on the elemental’s behalf and she thought it improbable in the extreme, but also couldn’t see a problem.

            “In my case it made itself known, sire, so presumably it would again. And if you’ve any doubt ask the knight to re-enter the Chamber and declare their task done. Or use your truth spell.”

            It was Jonathan’s turn to blink. “I cannot just use the truth spell on nobles whenever I feel like it, Lady Keladry.”

            “Why not? If they’re telling the truth all’s well, and if not they’re lying to their king and ought to be stopped.”

            “It’s in Our reciprocal oaths that no magic shall be used on a noble without consent. Has been since that mages’ revolt you mentioned.”

            “Then add a rider excepting truth magic to all new oaths and let it spread naturally. It’d be a good thing all round. And as far as the elemental is concerned, order anyone claiming its patronage to report back to it.”

            “I suppose. The other I’ll take under advisement.”

            “It’s a good one, Jon. What arguments d’you think anyone could advance to say they should be allowed to lie to you?” Numair grinned. “And wouldn’t you enjoy dealing with them?”

            “I have to say I like it too, father. My truth spell’s not as good as yours but I’ll have someone who does have the juice, even for a lord with the Gift.” Roald was thoughtful. “This came up with Shinko because she didn’t understand why nobles could give sworn evidence in court or to the Council and refuse to be truth-spelled. They can’t in Yaman.”

            Numair nodded. “Nor Carthak. I’m not sure about the Copper Isles but I can’t see the Rittevons accepting such a limit on their power any more than Ozorne.”

            A smile glimmered on the King’s face. “Alright, alright, you needn’t gang up. I said I’ll think about it. I’ll ask Turomot too.” He looked at Kel. “You do have a direct way, Lady Keladry, don’t you? It tends to be alarming but it’s clearly stood you in good stead.”

            Kel shrugged. “There’s proper tact, sire, and going all round the houses when you’ve only to open the door. That’s why I’m willing to try to talk to the elemental—maybe it’ll tell us all to run along, as it did Numair, but fidgeting speculation about why it did this or that without trying to ask it directly seems a waste of time.”

            “Indeed. Then again, you seem to ask spidrens and other immortals about whatever’s on your mind as well. Kings too, come to that.”

            “You think so, sire?” Kel’s voice was cool. “I’ve never asked why you agreed to have me put on probation, didn’t condemn my fear of heights, or allowed Joren to get away with a speech openly insulting your queen, arranged marriages for Roald and Princess Kalasin, and champion. They were questions much on my mind, but I didn’t ask them and never will.”

            “Ouch.” The King regarded her quizzically while Roald tried to hide his smile. Numair didn’t bother.

            “All of us who know Kel have told you she doesn’t ask many questions, Jon—nothing like enough when it comes to her own needs, though she’s getting better.” Numair winked at her. “She looks for an answer herself. What she does, consistently, is put things into question by not making the same wrong assumptions the rest of us are prone to.”

            Astonishment overcame Kel’s indignation. “I make enough wrong assumptions of my own, then, Numair, to add to the stock.”

            “I don’t think so, Kel.” Roald shook his head. “Numair’s right—you don’t make assumptions the way most do. I could never decide if it was all the nonsense you face or seeing through Yamani eyes. Both, maybe.”

            The King nodded sharply. “I have to agree, Lady Keladry—you seem to make very few assumptions. You drew a wrong conclusion from inadequate evidence, thinking I’d punish you for having disobeyed Cavall, but we can all do that, and as he insisted we’d given you little reason to expect fairness. Even then one could say you weren’t assuming success would pay for all transgressions, as many people do. When I thought about it I realised it was also because of how you felt about what had happened to your command in your forced absence. When people have consciences at all they can be odd like that.” His face was distant with memory. “No matter. You’re correct about trying to talk to the Chamber and it’s time we did. Whatever his faults, and gods know they’re legion, it would not be kind to keep Lord Burchard waiting on this matter. You’re sure you don’t want to come, Numair?”

            “Not in the least, Jon. It told me to go away nicely last time and I’ve no wish to irritate it. In their own domains elementals as old as that one has to be are powerful things.”

            “Roald?”

            “Not unless you think I must, father. I didn’t enjoy my own Ordeal very much and I don’t know how Kel’s so calm about it.”

            “It’s not like an Ordeal, Roald, truly. It … just shows up, in the face carved above the door lintel or in the earth, and talks.”

            “That infernal plain without anything in sight?”

            “Yes.”

            “Then no thanks. Horrid place.”

            Kel found her sense of humour restored by Roald’s exaggerated shudder. “I did ask it why it hadn’t decorated with trees and birds or something but it got all huffy. It probably likes a nice bare desert.”

            Only Numair laughed, shaking his head. Two Conté men stared at her with identical expressions hovering between bemusement and shock. The King recovered first.

            “You asked the Chamber of the Ordeal why it hadn’t decorated its desert. And it got huffy. I don’t blame it. Mithros!”

            “I asked the elemental, sire, not the room it lives in. Would you like to live there permanently? Ordeals happen in people’s heads anyway—it would make no difference if you whitewashed and furnished the room.”

            “Don’t even think it. Gods preserve us from decorating women.”

            But he did smile this time, quite warmly, and making her farewells to Roald and Numair they went together, guards falling in behind as they left the private apartments. The first afternoon bell struck as they arrived and Lord Burchard was waiting, accompanied by two men in Stone Mountain livery. He was in unrelieved black, pale face and white-blond hair standing out in the gloom. He offered the King a stiff bow and to Kel’s surprise made one to her as well. His voice was strained.

            “Lady Knight, I have been told what happened last night and dissociate myself wholly from Torhelm. Angors was always blasphemous and a fool in his cups. I am neither, and do not oppose the gods’ will.”

            Kel forbore to point out that in condemning female knights he did nothing but oppose the goddess. “Thank you, Lord Burchard.”

            He nodded jerkily. “You are generous, undertaking this. I spoke badly to you after Joren’s death and I apologise. I was in shock.”

            Kel had little doubt he’d spoken badly of her many times. “Of course. There can be few griefs greater than a parent’s for their child.”

            “There are none.” His face became almost animated. “It possesses you. Food and company have no savour. Work is the only solace and what is the point when your best and eldest has been taken from you?”

            Joren had two brothers and a sister; Kel winced at the bleakness of lives with such a father but her face showed nothing as the King nodded gravely and swung open the doors of the Chapel, urging Burchard forward. Over their shoulders Kel saw the room prepared as for an Ordeal, a lamp burning before the gold sun disc and a bench before the door of the Chamber. She was last in, closing the doors in the face of the King’s guards and liveried men, but when she turned found she was expected to lead on, and bracing herself inside as she had so often walked forward and laid hands on the cold metal of the door.

            “Elemental of the Chamber, I come with King Jonathan and Lord Burchard of Stone Mountain, who have asked me to question you on matters of high concern. Will you let us enter?”

            She heard no answer save perhaps a sigh but the door gave under her hand and she walked into the small, bare stone room that held such strange power. The King was behind her, face austere, but Burchard hesitated, swallowing before forcing himself forward. The door swung closed and Kel’s eyes went to the face carved above the lintel, where yellow eyes looked down at them all and thin stone lips never moved

            What matters of high concern, Protector? I told that mage I will say nothing of Shakith or any god. They speak for themselves if they wish, as you found last night.

            “It’s not that.” Kel realised the men had heard nothing when they looked surprise and followed her gaze to the carved face. “Three years ago, at Midwinter, a squire entered this Chamber and did not leave it alive. Joren of Stone Mountain. He was pale blond, as his father here.”

            What of it?

            A sidelong glance told her she was still the only one hearing, and she didn’t know if they could see the yellow eyes. Not good. “Many people besides Lord Burchard were shocked by Joren’s death, and sorely puzzled. In the same year you rejected another squire, Vinson of Genlith, requiring confession of his crimes and punishing him with the harm he had done others.”

            So?

            “You know mortal understandings are limited, and we are confused by the difference in your judgements and actions. It causes disturbance in the realm, as the King stands here to attest. Will you tell us why you judged so? I ask that you speak so we all hear—please do not burden me alone with knowledge none but you can ever confirm.”

            Very well. Kel felt a wave of relief as the King and Burchard stiffened, eyes turning to the carved face. You will not like what I have to say, Protector, if I do as you ask. Nor you, Lord of Stone Mountain.

            “Please.” Burchard was hoarse. “I must know why you killed my son.”

            I was the vessel of his death only. His heart burst with hatred in the test I set him. Would you know the details of his Ordeal?

            “You made me fight, climb, and watch awful things I couldn’t stop.”

            As I made him. Like you he fought well, and was strong. But the vision of friends and kin dying did not move him. Your death gladdened him, Lord of Stone Mountain, for he would inherit and chafed under your rule. Deaths of women excited him, for his mind was filled with desire to kill her who has become Protector of the Small—to kill, torture, and rape. To him the sum of knighthood was the power to do so. I made him live a world of female power, where the Protector was queen and the safety of his liege-people required loyal submission. He died rather than do so. The Black God took him safely.

            Kel felt sick and the anguished noise Burchard made didn’t help as he turned away, stumbling towards the door which swung open to let him pass. She heard him drop to his knees, anguish become retching, and before the smell could reach her spoke more sharply than she meant.

            “Shut it again, please. Now.”

            It shut and yellow eyes looked at her with what might be surprise.

            There is more?

            “Sire?”

            The King swallowed, looking deeply disturbed. “Ah—yes, Lord of the Chamber, there is more.”

            Ask then, Jonathan of Conté. I serve your realm and will answer what serves that end.

            “First, a clarification, if you will. Did Joren of Stone Mountain truly intend to kill Lady Keladry? Or only dream of it?”

            He intended murder and had attempted it by proxy, paying knights to try to kill her on the field of honour. It was his hatred of you as all he could never be, Protector, that drew you to my closer attention, not only your repeated visits to my door.

            “And why did you choose her to kill the necromancer?”

            I chose the tool that would work. I told her I did not know when or where she would meet that mage but in visions of his death the knight who killed him always acted alone. The others of that year were good knights, save one who barely passed my test, but I did not think they would act alone as the timeway required. Why does this matter to you?

            “Because you are a cornerstone of my realm, and your decision to give the first known Lady Knight in more than a century a special task has had … repercussions.”

            Stone couldn’t shrug but Kel felt an equivalent in her mind and abruptly they stood on the earthen plain, bare even of grass and without a cloud in the sky. The face formed in earth before them.

            This is the context in which I judge squires, Jonathan of Conté, without distraction. Mortal ephemera is not my concern. Why you ceased to send me female squires I never understood for it greatly weakens your realm, and their return pleases me. The Protector is the strongest knight you have sent in a long while, since your Lioness and the Lord of Goldenlake. Should I not use her to your realm’s best advantage?

            Kel was bothered if the elemental would make her blush but its words rang her heart with joy. She had always known she’d been very lucky in Raoul as a knight master, but she’d been deprived of contact with Alanna for so long, and to know herself joined with her childhood heroine in the elemental’s mind was a testimony she’d never expected.

            “I am glad you did, Lord of the Chamber. But if you should again need to give a new knight a special task, will you tell Us? Or Our heir, Roald, when he shall sit on Our throne? I will gladly swear to support that task, whatever it may be, or do nothing, if you so command, but to be ignorant of such a thing is … onerous to a king. And unsafe.”

            There was what seemed to Kel a long silence, though it probably wasn’t more than a few moments—bare earth and windless air made time very abstract. The King looked at her once or twice but she silently indicated they should wait.

            I make no promise, Jonathan of Conté. None but the Great Gods can command me, nor will I command a mortal king. But I will say I do not believe it likely I will need to assign further tasks, as I did to the Protector. I have done so only once before her, and even should another necromancer arise to disgust the gods he or she will not stand so close to the roil in the timeway that we approach. The voice became what Kel thought of as disgruntled. It is only in recent years Conté kings have ceased to speak to me about each set of squires. Do you wish to reinstitute the custom?

            The King looked very surprised. “What custom? To speak to you about squires? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

            Your knowledge is at fault. Your grandfather Jasson was the last to do so, early in his reign. He said he would be absent from Corus the following year, and never came again. Your father I only ever spoke to at his Ordeal, as I had spoken to you only once before the Protector.

            “What was it the custom to speak of? And how was it done?”

            On the night after the last ordeal each Midwinter the king would come, and we spoke of fitness and unfitness I had found, new knights’ strengths and weaknesses, the realm’s needs. It was part of my service.

            The King shook his head ruefully. “We have forgotten much, it seems. Thank you for reminding Us, Lord of the Chamber. I will come on the night after the last Ordeal.”

            Kel was fascinated by the jumping pronouns of the King and the man the elemental insisted on, Jonathan of Conté, but she had no time to think about either.

            Very well. Is that all, Protector?

            “Not quite. I have two questions.” She glanced at the King, again looking surprised, and subdued embarrassment. “One is personal but I am content the King hear it. The other concerns you and the realm.”

            Ask then.

            She looked around, delaying, and a thought struck her. “You read our minds, yes? Our thoughts and memories and emotions?”

            You know I do. The voice seemed unusually patient.

            “So you know what has happened to me in the last six months?”

            You have suffered and achieved much. The gods echo in you.

            “Yes, well. I know you like your desert but can you put us at New Hope? On the gatehouse roof, on a sunny day?”

            Seamlessly they were there, New Hope behind them, neatly ordered but deserted, the Greenwoods valley stretched before them. Though she knew it for illusion the familiar view was a comfort and Kel felt something in her relax. For the King, however, all was surprise.

            “Mithros! This is New Hope?” He took a step to the parapet and leaned through a crenel, peering down. “Gods, it is a stronghold, isn’t it?”

            Pulling himself back he walked round, looking at the double palisade and killing field, then over the shelf and main level stretching away to terrace and shrines. When he spoke his voice was warm.

            “Formidable, Lady Keladry, truly. Lord of the Chamber, can you create anywhere in my realm like this?”

            The thin-lipped face appeared on a merlon. If I have encountered one who knows it. Much of your realm is within my knowledge. If you have need you may ask to see a place you do not know yourself. I did this for your forebears long ago, but that custom too passed. What were your questions, Protector?

            Kel steeled herself. “May I speak of my Ordeal?”

            I have never forbidden any person to speak of what I do. It is a mortal custom to insist on silence about it.

            “Mithros!”

            “I thought as much.” Kel’s voice overlapped the King’s but her eyes were resting on a distant slope, beyond Haven. “So. In my Ordeal, as in the visions given through your door, you made me watch everyone I love and like die, horribly—all my deepest fears. But I realised after the tauros that one thing you never did was threaten or use rape. Why not?”

            Why should I? Something that might be distaste curled in the mindvoice. It was no deep fear of yours then nor mortal mating any part of your knowledge. What purpose would it serve so to test you?

            “None, I hope. Yet those who oppose female knights speak insistently of what you call mating. I think you should be testing them.”

            What do you mean?

            “It links with my second question. You said last year a squire barely passed your test. I’m guessing that was Quinden of Marti’s Hill.”

            It was.

            “Do you know what happened to him?”

            Has he died? That happens. He was a weak fighter with a streak of treachery but with the war the realm needs knights.

            The indifference chilled Kel. “No, he didn’t die—he caused serious disciplinary problems and was dismissed from service. And as much as Joren he seems to hate and despise women.”

            Yes, such hatred was in his mind, including hatred of you, Protector, but he had no plans to kill you and I let him pass.

            “Well, he says he has such plans now. And there are other knights with the same hatred—Ansil and Arknor of Groten, Voelden of Tirrsmont, Belar of Heathercove, Guisant of Torhelm, and his father Angors, whom three gods struck down last night for suggesting I’d seduced Lord Mithros. And the other knight with him, Garvey of Runnerspring.” The thing that most rankled and appalled spilled from her lips. “When Guisant heard me say I’d died of the tauros rape his first reaction before confusion set in was pleasure. The thought thrilled him.”

            She heard the King exclaim but her attention was on the elemental, whose face seemed to frown.

            I read the truth of what you say in your mind, Protector. You believe I should not have passed these men, nor those who hate women as they do? All could fight well.

            “I call them a danger and a disgrace to the realm. But I’m not trying to say who you should or shouldn’t pass. I’m saying you should test for such hatred as a weakness.            You hammer people with their deepest fears. Well and good. What you don’t do, or never did to me, is tempt them with their basest desires. A knight should be chivalrous as well as strong. You test for strength, always, but not chivalry. And men carry from here the sanction of knighthood, though they poison the realm with minds that cannot separate anything from their own desires to rut.”

            There was another silence. Kel met the King’s eyes defiantly but said nothing as she watched him grapple with what she’d already said.

            Jonathan of Conté, do you share the Protector’s concern?

            Kel knew the elemental could read both their minds but didn’t care, and her gaze dared the King to say to her face that he would allow such men to be knights in full knowledge of their vileness. After a tense moment he nodded.

            “Lord of the Chamber, I do. I cannot deny I wonder how each man Lady Keladry named became a knight and wish them to perdition.”

            There will be more failures.

            The King took a deep breath. “Then there must be more failures.”

            “Tell them why they fail when you release them—that they are not incapable of fighting but of protecting the weak as knights are sworn to do. That knighthood is more than capable butchery and a knight more than a tauros in mail.” Kel’s voice was passionate but she hadn’t wholly forgotten politics. “You will be talking to the King after each year’s Ordeals so he will know. And the training master can know also—it was Wyldon’s failure not to know this, because in his own honour he could not imagine the minds of Joren and Vinson and to him they concealed their baseness. But they could not conceal it from you, and you denied them.”

            I will think about it, Protector. Stone lips couldn’t smile any more than stone could shrug. I said you would do nicely. Is that all?

            “Yes, thank you.” Kel looked down and the King’s voice startled her.

            “Is it possible for me to walk around New Hope while I am here?”

            The mindvoice was very dry. The Protector’s knowledge of her command is extremely detailed. Go where you will, but swiftly.

            A surprised Kel found herself giving the strangest tour yet. Everything was solid and complete but the absence of people was disconcerting and she concentrated on the layered defences. As they stood on the North Tower roof the King looked at her sidelong.

            “You didn’t say you had your own agenda, Lady Keladry.”

            “I didn’t altogether know it, sire, until I heard why Joren died and that Quinden barely passed.”

            “You’d been thinking about it, though.”

            “And last night you heard why. Torhelm was grosser and more blasphemous but the tenor of his words was no surprise to me.”

            He winced. “It was grotesque. I can’t say you’re wrong.”

            They continued round the alure to the cliffs and descended to the terrace. The shrines glittered strangely and Kel stopped, staring.

            “They don’t usually look like that but Takemahou-sensei said they were filled with godlight. The elemental must be adding it.

            You are correct, Protector. Even in your mind I perceive the traces of the gods’ blessings here.

            Kel thought of dedications and an idea struck her—she and the King were within the shallow bay so they wouldn’t be in the way. She fixed the image in her mind, from Quenuresh’s bulk to Kitten and Junior.

            “Can you add the immortals, as they were at the dedications?” Silently they appeared, unmoving as statues. “Thank you.”

            “Mithros!” The King took an involuntary step back. “That’s Quenuresh? She’s huge. Roald said she was but seeing her is different.”

            “Isn’t it? I tried to tell Macayhill and the others—you have to live with her and learn trust. You can’t command it.” She named the other immortals. “We held a first council when I left. It was odd but worked.”

            Unsure, she led him round the still immortals and down to the caves. They were there too, but she felt the elemental’s patience wearing thin and went no further than the main cavern, mentioning what lay elsewhere. When they climbed back to the main level it shimmered and vanished, leaving them in the bare Chamber with the dimmest light.

            Kel bowed to the stone face. “Thank you.”

            You are welcome, Protector. It was not such a bad name after all, was it? Go now and protect someone else.

            The door swung open, letting in the light of the Chapel beyond. The King blinked.

            “Why are you glaring at the carving, Lady Keladry? Did it speak?”

            “It was being sarcastic.”

            “Sarcastic? Mithros! I won’t ask. Come, I’ve no idea how long we’ve been in here but I want true daylight again.”

            In the Chapel a damp patch showed where Lord Burchard’s lunch had been cleaned away, but a sour reek lingered in the air and with mutual haste Kel and the King crossed to the doors. At his enquiry one guard said it had been only a few minutes before Lord Burchard stumbled out and they’d seen what had happened and summoned a servant; it had been barely half-a-candle-mark since they’d all gone in.

            “Now that’s like an Ordeal.”

            Kel agreed, and they went together in silence, parting at the foot of the stairway to the private apartments. Before the King had taken a dozen steps up he clattered down again, calling her back and asking the guards to stand away.

            “Lady Keladry, I owe you far greater thanks than I have yet offered, and my indebtedness grows every hour, it seems. The last two days have been one amazement after another. And New Hope is astonishing, as a fort and a model of treaty peace. There are reasons I have bestowed no greater reward on you that you will soon learn, but I would not have you think me unappreciative.”

            That un-Yamani frankness that came closer to Kel’s surface with every experience gripped her. “Thank you, sire. I don’t do anything in hope of reward, but if you’re feeling grateful don’t ever set me up again as you did yesterday. I’ll play the goat if you ask it with fair reason but not blind. It’s wrong, needlessly. And if we’re going to speak like this, please, it’s Keladry. There’s a limit to how much ladyship I can take.”

            He looked at her with what in another man she’d have called admiration but that was absurd.

            “I think there will be few limits otherwise, Keladry. A Councillor who speaks plainly without fear or favour is worth a great deal to any king.” Something settled in his eyes. “It will take a while to arrange but Torhelm’s seat is yours and will remain so irrespective of what happens with New Hope. To hinder your passage to knighthood was the single stupidest thing I’ve done since I proposed to Alanna.” He ignored Kel’s complete confusion. “I say this to few but I have said it to your father in matters of Yaman, and say it to you in respect of immortals under treaty at New Hope, or others who come there. If there is no time to ask but you need my authority, you have it, without fear of traducement. I will not forget.”

            He turned and was gone again, leaving Kel speechless. The seat on the Council was a shock and not altogether welcome, but would serve New Hope well and she wasn’t unaware she’d be the first knight of her generation on the Council as well as a second Mindelan seat. The covert authority was interesting too, and effectively ratified her offer to Queen Barzha, which was useful. But … the King had proposed to Alanna? And been refused, presumably. When did that happen, and what was the story? Kel didn’t usually relish gossip but this was far too good to pass up and she went in search of Alanna to find out.

            After gratifying her curiosity with an entirely scurrilous saga that left Kel having to remember to keep her mouth closed—disguised squire and knight master? and the Rogue?—the conversation turned inevitably to the Chamber and a while later Kel found herself in an improbable meeting with Alanna, Wyldon, and Padraig. She relayed what the elemental had said and each point brought intense discussion—Joren’s death, its indifference to whether people spoke of their Ordeals and duty of meeting the King each Midwinter, mapping ability, her request for a new kind of testing. She found herself nervous about Wyldon’s reaction to the last but he was supportive.

            “I’ve thought a lot about what you said, Keladry, and come to the conclusion you were exactly right. A lad like Genlith should not be a knight—no-one can dispute that—and neither should a man like Torhelm. I’m sorry it should have to be tested for, but it’s plain it should.”

            Not having known Joren Padraig was shocked by the elemental’s revelation of corruption, but as a fair-minded man had no quarrel with the exclusion of anyone similar, though the thought of increased failures was deeply unwelcome. Kel was blunt.

            “Why don’t you read all new pages key passages from the Code of Chivalry, Padraig? Tell them from the first the elemental tests all of it—protecting those weaker than you, living to honour your kingdom and gods, not just defend them, not refusing any cry for help from man, woman, or child. It’s all there—it’s just some of it’s slipped in practice, like annual meetings and other things the elemental will do.”

            “Yes, that’s sound advice, Keladry.” He sighed. “It’s only that, well, the Chamber’s always been the great mystery, above everything and everyone. It’s disconcerting to find it thinks we’ve been ignoring it and wants to talk. I wonder why Jasson let that custom lapse—it seems a very odd thing to do.”

            Kel had been thinking about that. “It said it was early in his reign and he warned it he’d be away next year—which sounds like the winter campaign against Barzun, when he was injured. I’ve had no chance to check but I recall he was unconscious for a while, a day at least.”

            “That’s right.” Wyldon was definite. “It’s in Emry of Haryse. They were worried about him. You think he forgot after injury?”

            “Or thought about it differently.”

            “And if only he knew …” Alanna nodded thoughtfully.

            “Exactly. That’s why I’ve told you all, so a pool of people know.”

            “Good thinking.” Alanna and Wyldon spoke in unison and looked at one another in horror before Alanna cackled and Wyldon winced.

            “Kel, you’ve spanked the Council, called three gods down on Torhelm, and solved a mystery we didn’t even know existed, but that’s nothing to getting Cavall and me to agree. Goddess, what are you going to do next?”

 

* * * * *

 

On Longnight Eve it began to snow, and before the storm eased four days later everything became a wonderland. It meant Owen could do little on the day before his Ordeal but mooch around the Palace, until Kel and Wyldon took him to the indoor practice courts to burn off nervous energy sparring with glaives borrowed from the pages. Having seen how devastatingly she used it he’d been experimenting, and Wyldon, if now interested, was a novice, so Kel taught them a pattern dance with the benefit of inducing meditative calm. Afterwards they sent him to have dinner with his father, ate companionably, arguing merits of glaive, spear, and halberd, and met him again at the Chapel when the hour came.

            To instruct a candidate for knighthood was a special responsibility and Kel felt the honour keenly. Neither she nor Wyldon had said anything to Owen about contact with the elemental, and had no fears for his temper of mind, but as they spoke the phrases of the Code she wondered if it was listening. She had reluctantly agreed not to stay in the Chapel during Owen’s vigil, as Turomot had for her, lest anyone suspect interference—the opposite of Turomot’s reasoning and an unwelcome irony, however sensible. But she was there with the children, Wyldon, and many people, including Owen’s pacing father, to see him stagger out, hectic but triumphant.

            “Not even a bit jolly,” he said as they surrounded him with congratulations , “but being a knight at last is. Bandits here I come.”

            Wyldon took him and his father off, and at sunset Kel saw the King knight him in the Great Hall. Next dawn she saw Prosper emerge, equally exhausted and relieved, and the dinner Padraig gave two evenings later for all six new knights with their knight masters and second instructors was an interesting innovation. It brought Kel into contact with people she knew only by sight, and if there was a wary courtesy in the way everyone treated her she wasn’t complaining. None of those who knew mentioned that the King would be entering the Chamber that evening, though it was on their minds, but Kel and Wyldon were asked if they knew what Quinden had done to enrage General Vanget, and made it clear his crime had been to endanger men he’d been leading. The conversation turned to responsibilities of command and Kel was surprised to realise she had more experience than anyone at the table except Wyldon and Padraig, but more pleased with professional respect than wariness of divine intervention—the only good thing about which was that no-one was prepared to ask about her experience of dying.

            She also had other things on her mind, and though she wouldn’t have told Owen for the world one had been more memorable than even the honour of instructing him. On Midwinter morning, after she and the children exchanged gifts they’d collected outdoor gear in hope of a good snowfight and taken presents for Numair, Daine, and Kitten to their rooms. Everyone was left very pleased with one another: Kel gained a black opal Numair had managed to rig to let her activate spellmirrors, Giftless as she was, and the children a clever Carthaki toy whose irregular wooden blocks fitted together in scores of ways; Numair appreciated his jerkin, embroidered with stars, while Daine was tearfully grateful for the thought but cheered by dark green trousers to accommodate her pregnancy. For Kitten they’d found a fine model of the Palace, complete with towers and finials, that Kel had an amused Tkaa petrify. The dragonet was happily lighting it in a rainbow of colours when she sat bolt upright, magic winking out.

            Grandsire is coming!

            Daine’s and Numair’s rooms had an additional outside door to allow four-legged visitors to come to them directly, and a piercing trill had it swinging wide for Kitten to charge out. Snowflakes swirled in and a cursing Daine struggled up while Numair pushed it to until they could all don outside gear and follow. Nearly a foot of snow proved a greater obstacle than Kitten had anticipated, and they caught up with her determinedly ploughing along half-way to the horse-meadows adjoining the Forest. Chuckling, Numair scooped her up, brushing off snow and setting her on his shoulders. Horses and ponies had been stabled when snow began and the field was empty, but Daine had them wait.

            “Diamondflame needs a fair space to land.”

            After cold moments in which they saw nothing but snowflakes Daine cocked an eyebrow at Kitten, whose snout was turned skyward.

            “Sure he’s coming now, Kit? Did he speak or did you sense him?”

            “Something’s happening, magelet.” Numair’s long nose was also pointing up. “The spiral spell, I think.”

            Kel’s question led to an explanation that didn’t leave her much wiser and broke off as a vast, dark shape passed overhead, disappearing again into the snowstorm before reappearing much lower and cupping massive wings to settle surprisingly lightly in the field. Diamondflame was huge, even with wings furled, black against the snow save for a golden crest, and Kel instinctively hung back clutching Tobe’s and Irnai’s hands tightly as Kitten leaped clean over Numair’s head and began ploughing through the snow towards him, trilling fit to burst. Seeing her the great dragon flicked out a paw, one silver claw extended, and a line of flame melted snow in Kitten’s path in a heartbeat. Ploughing became a headlong rush, but as she reached him she skidded to a halt, bowed deeply, and bounced into a welcoming paw that grasped her, clearly talking twenty-nine to the dozen, never mind nineteen. Daine and Numair followed, Kel and the children cautiously trailing, fascinated but unwilling to intrude. She realised Diamondflame wasn’t black but the darkest blue, like the ink of tentacle-fish that washed up at Mindelan. Eyes larger even than Kawit’s surveyed them benevolently.

            Greetings, Godborn, and to you, Numair Salmalín. My granddaughter seems in high spirits and to have progressed remarkably. Diamondflame’s mindvoice was astounding, as rich and deep as a great singer’s but crackling with power, impossible age audible—or whatever a mindvoice was. You have looked after her well, and the debt is acknowledged. Wingstar and Rainbow send greetings.

            “Thank you. And ours to them, Diamondflame. Kit’s been no trouble and she’s worked hard at magic and understanding mortals. Kawit’s spell enabling her to speak to us has been a great help.”

            I would think so. Amusement rolled in the voice. Though it is not exactly a spell, but an ancient magic inhering in opal dragons even I had forgotten. It is long since one of my cousins walked in the world and I look forward to seeing Kawit—it is three score centuries since we spoke.

            She was asleep for twenty, Grandsire, but I am very glad I woke her up. Not being able to talk to anyone was very frustrating and she and the basilisk Tkaa have taught me much since then. Look!

            Sitting in the huge paw Kitten trill-croaked a complicated sequence and each of Diamondflame’s great silver claws, longer than the blade of Kel’s glaive, flashed a different colour.

            That is excellent, Skysong. There are dragons with a century for each of your years who cannot do as much. Perhaps I should send them to dwell in the mortal realms also.

            Kel was bemusedly contemplating an influx of dragonets on mortal furlough when she was aware of the dragon’s gaze.

            Will you introduce your friends, Skysong? One youngling sparkles with Shakith’s gift, the other with the wild magic of horses, while the woman is radiant with lingering godlight.

            Oh, I’m sorry. Grandsire, this is Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, Protector of the Small. The Graveyard Hag played a trick on her she did not like, but the Goddess and Black God have favoured her and six days ago with Mithros they struck down a mortal who was upsetting her. The boy is her adopted son, Tobeis, and the girl Irnai of Rathhausak. Kel rescued her from the Scanran king no-one likes. Kel, Tobe, Irnai, this is my grandsire Diamondflame. He is the most important dragon of all except Rainbow Windheart and fought with us in the Immortals War.

            Kel and both children had completed deep bows long before Kitten finished and saw Diamondflame’s eyes spark with interest.

            Thank you, Skysong, and greetings, Lady Knight Keladry, Tobeis, Irnai. I felt gods move together and wondered what they were about. One mortal upsetting another does not seem sufficient cause.

            “Um, he was very blasphemous, my Lord, and gods have been watching me lately. Queen Barzha Razorwing of the Stone Tree Nation says the timeway rests on me, though I have no idea why it should.”

            That is interesting. Barzha Razorwing is wise, as stormwings go.

            She gave Kel the skulls of some tauroses Kel killed and she made a skullroad. Barzha said they did it because of an old skullroad lined with dragon skulls. Kitten’s indignation was undiminished. Is that true?

            Diamondflame’s gaze became a palpable weight. A skullroad? That is an ancient term. I cannot know why stormwings do anything they do, Skysong—they are their own creatures though their eyries border our lands—but it is true a skullroad in the Divine Realms was created during the Godwars. There is a dragonsong about it, and a godsong. Lady Knight, there is a tale here, plainly. Perhaps we might go somewhere and hear it.

            Kel bowed again. “Of course, my Lord, but I have no idea where you might, ah, fit.”

            Dimensions present no difficulty. I go where I will.

            “Kawit’s stable-block is nearest,” Daine suggested, “and I know she’s looking forward to seeing you too.”

            Very well. Let us go.

            What followed was the strangest day of Kel’s life, tauroses and gods notwithstanding. At the stables Kawit was waiting, swishing snow with her tail, and welcomed them. How Diamondflame fitted into a building smaller than he was Kel had no idea, but doors, walls, and ceiling somehow bulged out of his way and he entered with ease, settling along one wall with Kawit opposite him and everyone else grouped round their heads; Kitten again snuggled into one huge paw, a mouse on a mountain. Seeing the mortals retained coats Diamondflame waved his other forepaw and walls and floor became warm to the touch, soon heating the whole block sufficiently that layers were shed. Irnai settled against Kawit, smiling at the dragon’s heat, and a surprised Tobe found himself sent to inform the King who had arrived and returned even wider-eyed than he’d left, with Jonathan, Thayet, Roald, and Shinko, who all bowed greetings and settled to listen. By then Kel was deep in her tale of what the elemental and assorted gods had been saying to her and how the skullroad had come to be, passing over her death while feeling she didn’t fool Diamondflame for one minute. He let out a breath redolent with heat and spices.

            The gods’ concern with chaos-touched tauroses makes sense, but their number may be coincidence. Still, I share Barzha’s suspicion, and anything that induces stormwings to boil seven skulls clean is worth thought. This gathering of kinds at New Hope is interesting also—and Quenuresh as sensible a spidren as I have met. I wondered when I heard of the treaty between ogres, mortals, and the People at Dunlath, but this is closer to the mark. Is there anything else you can say about the skullroad, Keladry? Perhaps something you think trivial?

            Wondering what mark he meant Kel hesitantly mentioned the way the stormwings had piled up skulls, almost as a sculpture, and added with some embarrassment the soldiers’ nicknames for them.

            That is as strange as anything in this tale, for the gods did as much for the dragonskulls set in their road. Language then was not as it is now, but the names of those dragons might be rendered as Firebreath, Golden Eggs, and their five kits; their skulls became, in your idiom, let me see, Cinders, Yolky, Flinders, Croaky, Parcel, Morsel, and Runt. It was the contempt for the kits that enraged dragons to their revenge.

            Kel didn’t know where to look. “I’m sorry. I’ll remove the skulls.”

            Your feeling does you honour but there is no need. Tauroses have neither names nor mates nor young. None will take offence or revenge. What intrigues me is that no mortal could have known this tale, nor would any god speak of it, even Crooked Kyprioth. Barzha must be right about the timeway’s spiral.

            “I didn’t really understand about that, I’m afraid, my Lord.”

            Mortal perceptions of time are limited. Even such as young Irnai, who sometimes see the timeway through Shakith’s eyes, cannot grasp it as dragons and gods do. And we do not control what we understand. The timeway is how all that might be refines itself into what will be and is. It existed before Father Universe and Mother Flame and will exist after them. It has patterns of its own making.

            “Its own making?”

            Yes. It is not a being one talks with but far more than blind force.

            “Huh. May I ask what you meant when you said New Hope was nearer the mark than Dunlath?”

            Prophecies speak of a time when all will live in peace together but it has not been so since the Godwars broke the peace of the beginning. And never in the mortal realm. I learned of Dunlath through Skysong even as Uusoae came close to bringing about the ending of all things that she desires. Now you build peace between kinds in the face of war. It may mean nothing but it is interesting.

            Kel didn’t want more prophecies, however interesting. “Is there anything I should do?”

            Continue as you have, striving with honour for what matters. None can do more and it is plain the gods who see possible outcomes guide you as they can. They seem sincere. But I will come to see this skullroad if Rainbow does not think it unwise. A skullroad is dragon business.

            Kel had to be satisfied and talk broadened, wandering through Irnai’s and Tobe’s experiences, Daine’s encounters with her parents and difficulties of being a pregnant shapeshifter, Numair’s researches and Kitten’s progress, Kawit’s impressions of the mortal realms after her two-thousand-year nap, Roald’s and Shinko’s marriage, and affairs of Tortall, including treaties with immortals, alliances, the war, killing devices, necromancy, and King Maggur’s methods of obedience. Hearing the King’s impressive voice sound thin beside the weight of Kawit’s and impossible depth of Diamondflame’s Kel found perspectives expanded even more than by her sense of Quenuresh’s and Tkaa’s ages.

            The mortal need for lunch—fortunately not shared by dragons—was dealt with by relays of pasties, but in mid-afternoon Jonathan and Thayet reluctantly left for duties not even Midwinter spared them. Tobe and Irnai were getting restless and Kel thought she’d best get them some exercise before heading to her parents’ townhouse for the evening, but Kitten was fidgety too and to Kel’s astonishment Kawit, eyeing the dragonet, proposed a snow fight.

            It is centuries since I saw such a snowstorm, but Skysong has told me about throwing balls of it and it sounds an enjoyable game.

            What followed was surreal. Diamondflame declined to do more than observe on the grounds that he was too large a target but the others found themselves involved in pitched battle. Roald and Shinko proved a dangerous pair, while Kawit’s ability to become invisible was offset by the snowless dragon-shape she left in the air, as well as Kitten’s considerable and Numair’s limited ability to pinpoint her anyway. Daine couldn’t shapeshift into an ice-bear but pregnancy didn’t stop her transforming one arm and hand to scoop larger missiles and throw them harder, teaming up with Kitten to track Kawit and with the children to ambush Kel and Numair. Shrieks, snorts, and trills of laughter brought ostlers, guards, servants, and a stray priest to see what was happening, stopping in shock when they saw Diamondflame crouched beside the railings; but he welcomed them with reassurances and spread a vast wing to provide shelter against the flakes that continued to fall. Thereafter hits were cheered or groaned and encouragement shouted, especially for the children and Kit, and when the dragonet managed to scramble up Kawit’s tail to her back—apparently walking on air—and place a snowball Tobe tossed to her squarely on the opal dragon’s head there was applause. Declaring Kit the winner Kawit let her stay there as they headed in, grinning at the enchanted audience, and Diamondflame reheated the stable so efficiently everyone was soon warm again.

            As night fell the mortals left the dragons to talk, Kawit promising to return Kitten to Daine’s and Numair’s rooms. Their outside staircase being the quickest way back they went together, Numair starting to pull at the story of skullroad and timeway and Kel determined to worry about neither.

            “There’s nothing I can do, Numair, and they’re even more of a distraction than prophecy.” She rested a hand on Irnai’s shoulder. “Besides, I may do better not knowing—if I had known about this dragon skullroad I’d never have allowed the tauros skulls to be made into one.”

            He didn’t disagree but his speculation continued in a mumble and they left him to it, parting from Daine with a hug and hurrying to change and head for another family dinner. Whether Adie and Orie entirely believed Tobe and Irnai had spent the day with three dragons was doubtful, though Kel solemnly assured them it was true, but with her sisters newly warm to her and more gifts exchanged to delight the children it capped the happiest as well as strangest Midwinter Kel remembered since Yamani childhood.

 

* * * * *

 

The King’s Ball closed the celebrations as the Queen’s Ball began them, and Kel and the children received magnificent invitations more-or-less commanding them to attend. Her parents were suspiciously insistent all Mindelans go together and when she asked Wyldon what was happening he was irritatingly mysterious. When Lalasa brought her another new dress, in the same style and colour but more elaborately embroidered and in extremely fine wool—a gift from Thayet she could hardly refuse and was expected to wear—Kel started to feel quite cranky.

            She solaced herself by going to see the women she’d lent money. The children stayed with Kitten, disconsolate since Diamondflame’s departure despite his reported promise to return next Midwinter as she had made such excellent progress. The storm had stopped but the snow was too deep to clear, and its crust, melting in the bright sunshine that followed, refroze hard and icy each night so no-one was risking horses. Lalasa had walked to the palace, in excellent boots and a wool cape with furred hood that reassured Kel she was spending some money on herself, and they walked to the city together. Versions of what had happened at the Queen’s Ball had come to Lalasa’s ears, and after hesitant enquiries Kel decided at least one true one ought to join them, and was surprised by Lalasa’s practical reaction.

            “I’m sorry you experienced that, my Lady, and to die of it, well, that’s as bad as can be. But if being forced is a lot worse than some men are willing to admit, it’s doesn’t have to be the end of the world as others say either. I found that out thanks to Uncle Gower and you. And you’re here and alive doing a world of good, you seem happier, and the creatures who did it are dead, so I’ll thank the Goddess and Black God for preserving you. And set people straight. Did that Lord of Torhelm really say such a disgusting thing? I can scarcely believe it.”

            Kel had always suspected that Lalasa’s abuse by her family had included rape and found her strength in having recovered without divine aid deeply admirable. She said as much, bringing a flush to Lalasa’s cheeks, before confirming just how obscenely blasphemous Torhelm had been and that he’d been dismissed the council and banished court. Then she pushed conversation to what could be done for other women who fell victim, and they discussed healers and temple help that might be procured. Lalasa was sanguine but again unexpectedly cheerful.

            “It’ll never stop, my Lady, but the classes and other things have already made a difference. This tale will make more.”

            “What other things?”

            “Well, it’s not proper to say to you, my Lady, but the Rogue’s made it known he’ll act against anyone who forces a woman, and made an example of a man who didn’t believe him. He’ll not be doing it again.” There was satisfaction in Lalasa’s voice, but she hesitated. “And you might not like this but I heard a story that a woman in trouble in a tavern shouted she was a Protector’s Maid and bought herself time to run. I’m sorry, my Lady—I meant it as a joke, but it’s spread and the women you’ve hired do like it, so I’m afraid it’ll stick.”

            Kel shrugged. “If it has that effect, Lalasa, good luck to it. The King made Protector of the Small an official title. I don’t know if it means anything, mind, and I’m not sure he does either—he was trying to hold the Queen’s Ball together after Torhelm was struck down—but I’m stuck with it so I might as well use it. And if that’s what these women want, that’s what they get.”

            Lalasa was pleased and Kel took advantage to press her again to drop the my-Ladying—meeting familiar resistance with a new suggestion for compromise, the Lady Kel standard at New Hope.

            “You know I’ve never been comfortable with noble address—it’s such a palaver—but I’ve grown used to Lady Kel from soldiers and it keeps things reasonable. Now they only my-Lady me when I’m cross with them or they’re up on a charge, so I’d much rather start off with these women as Lady Kel too and I wish you’d introduce me as that. It ought to be respectful enough for anyone who cares about proprieties, but it’s friendly rather than stand-offish.”

            Lalasa herself cared about proprieties in ways Kel had never understood but knew had to do with more than gratitude or protective vocatives that larded servants’ speech. Kel might think her as friend rather than maid but while Lalasa joyfully counted herself a friend also it did not displace awareness of noble status, and for all the personal confidence she’d found she remained in most ways far more conservative than Kel had ever been, imbibing a reasoned political liberalism with mother’s milk and diplomatic tolerance at her father’s knee. It wasn’t conservatism of Stone Mountain’s kind or Turomot’s, but it wasn’t much less suspicious of innovation than Wyldon and she gave Lalasa time to mull as they came to cleared parts of Palace Way and could walk faster.

            “Alright, my—Lady Kel. If that’s what you want it seems wrong to object thought I think it’s a dreadful liberty for those soldiers to call you by your name—a nickname too!”

            “Not really. When you fight alongside someone, or share latrine duty, or slog through mud up to your knees there’s respect enough without more formalities than are needed.”

            “Latrine duty? Why on earth would you be doing that?”

            “Oh, I put myself on all the rosters—it means no-one else can object and shows I’m not the kind of commander who won’t get my hands dirty. And rotating through once in a while, even now, keeps me on top of what’s happening—they’re more likely to make a request or a complaint if they’re working with me than if I tuck myself away in headquarters.”

            Lalasa nodded dubiously but Kel was saved further argument when they reached the first new premises, shared by a woman with a flair for cakes and pastries and her cousin, who made jams from every fruit and berry Kel had ever heard of and more besides. Feeling fatter and having placed a substantial jam order for New Hope, they went on to the doll-maker and collected one with hair red enough to delight Meech sideways. Kel tried to pay but was briskly refused, and as the woman had heard Meech’s story and said she was giving it to the boy there was nothing to do but graciously accept, and place another order for New Hope’s children. Kel did manage to escape gifts from a lacemaker, a woman who made window-curtains, drapes, and cushions, and a laundress specialising in finery who offered to have a go at her smoke-smutted dresses, but she left the last premises, an art shop, with a beautiful small drawing of herself arriving in Corus with Alanna and the children; it embarrassed her but she knew Tobe would love it. As she walked Lalasa back to her own shop she wondered how the artist, a young woman from the deep slum of Mutt Piddle Lane, could make a living.

            “The work’s beautiful, Lalasa, and she’s obviously very talented. I’m just surprised enough people would spend money on such a luxury.”

            “Oh, the drawings are only part of it, my—Lady Kel.” Kel grinned. “Tcha, I’ll get used to it. She sketches for me, to show what a dress’ll be like, and sometimes ladies ordering want a copy, a separate commission. She gets portrait work too, children mostly, and she’s a knack for faces. She’s done it for kin and friends since she was a girl, with charcoal, and been paid a little, so it’s just putting it on a proper basis.”

            Lalasa invited her in but Tom was there and the children would be waiting, so she declined and set off back to the Palace. People skittered out of her way, bowing, and she smiled back as openly as she could manage but made a point of standing aside herself for anyone burdened with children or elderly. On the snowy part of Palace Way she scooped up a crying little whose feet went from under him and presented him to the elder sister who came running back from whatever had distracted her; the simple practicality restored her good humour, and Tobe’s reaction to a picture that included him was all she had hoped.

            Dressing for the ball Kel was surprised and nervous when Irnai offered to duplicate Lalasa’s efforts with eye-shadow and turned out to have been given some by Adie, but the girl’s fingers were gentle and precise, the results just as good. The dress was also as splendid to wear as it had looked, and as they went to meet her family at her father’s office Kel felt as reconciled as she ever did to high festivities. At least the chances of anyone offering her insult this time were non-existent.

            Her confidence about that wavered when she realised Conal was present, but he kept aloof, nodding curt greeting and standing apart. Her parents’ dress surprised her—normally both wore either Tortallan or Yamani dress, but tonight her mother was in a new kimono-set, with the Mindelan owl and Seabeth-and-Seajen fouled anchor, while her father wore a rich Mindelan tunic and breeches. Her sisters and their husbands were also dressed to the nines, but when she managed to ask Orie what was going on her sister shrugged.

            “Your guess is as good as mine, Kel, but it’s plain Papa’s getting some honour—he’s been like a cat on hot bricks all week.”

            Ortien nodded. “There’s been speculation something’s due Mindelan, especially with Prince Roald’s marriage sealing the treaty, but I don’t think anyone knows except your parents and the King.”

            “Wyldon does but wouldn’t say.”

            Ortien blinked. “You’re on first-name terms?”

            “We’re friends these days. It’s nicer than being at loggerheads.”

            She left him nonplussed, to Orie’s amusement, and tried complimenting her mother, eyeing the kimonos, but received a wink and gave up, instead telling Adie about the new shops. Her sister nodded.

            “Yes, Tian was telling me. She says Lalasa has a suitor.”

            “Mmm, I met him—Tomas Weaver. He seems nice and she glows when he’s there.” Shakith’s assurances could stay private.

            “Oh. I’m pleased for her, of course, but a bit surprised. I thought she and Tian were, well, you know, together.”

            “Fujojoufu, you mean? I think they might have been at one time, when Lalasa was so nervous and could hardly bear to look at a man, but I don’t think it was ever a settled thing. And it’s harder here than in Yaman—more for men than women, I suppose, but still.”

            “That’s true. Merovec has a cousin who’s very unmarried and staying that way, and he gets quite bilious about it sometimes.”

            Kel glanced around but Merovec was deep in talk with Ortien and Conal staring into space. She kept her voice low. “You know, Adie, if there’s one thing conservatives have taught me it’s that they seem to link sex to everything. All else aside, did you realise how incoherent Torhelm’s insults were? It’s been the same ever since I grew breasts. And while they think nothing—or used to think nothing—of implying anything they dream up about me, if anyone suggested anything about them they’d lose it completely.”

            “I don’t think that’s conservatives, Kel—it’s just men.”

            “It’s not Papa, Anders, Inness, or Avinar—only Conal. And not Raoul, Neal, Dom, or most of the men in the Own. It’s not Wyldon, either, so it’s not all conservatives but it’s definitely a conservative trait.”

            “Maybe. I do agree it makes no sense at all.”

            “Well, if you ever figure it out, let me know.”

            “Alright.” Adie laid a hand on Kel’s arm. “Kel, what happened to you—gods know I’m sick and sorry but it’s made you, I don’t know, sharper. You wouldn’t have said anything like that a year ago.”

            “I thought it, though. I’ve been through a lot, Adie, and, well, dying seems to put things in perspective. Doesn’t it sound absurd? But it’s as much the experience of war generally, and especially of command—New Hope has close to a thousand people now and a lot to get done.”

            “A thousand people?”

            “Three companies, two of them regular with staffs, the clerks, and four hundred plus Tortallan refugees with the Scanrans and immortals. There’ll be more Tortallans in the spring and summer, almost certainly.”

            “Goddess! I hadn’t put it together.” Adie looked down. “Kel, I know Orie and I weren’t … we didn’t help you much with becoming a knight, and we thought it, well, foolish of you. It embarrassed us, if I’m honest, when we were hunting for husbands. But look at you now—you’ve done more already than any of us except Papa and Mama.”

            Self-consciousness warred with gratitude and Kel wondered what that had cost her sister to say. “I know it was awkward for you, Adie, but you stood up for me against people like that Doanna. And gods know what Lady Florzile will say now!”

            “She better hadn’t.” Adie’s eyes glittered. “And if she does I’ll ask her why she opposes the gods’ will when they’ve demonstrated it so spectacularly. She’s as rude as a Scanran at the best of times but not stupid or impious. She was yacking on about Tirrsmont’s arrest though.”

            “Tell her Nond voted for an enquiry of noble competence, so she should take it up with him before she makes a fool of herself in public.”

            “He did?”

            “Yes, with both haMinch votes and Cavall, Haryse, Frasrlund—everyone but Torhelm and Runnerspring. Tirrsmont perjured himself to Turomot and the Council and was caught red-handed.” Kel frowned. “Merovec and Ortien both knew Nond would oppose Tirrsmont’s grab for New Hope, so it sounds as if Lady Florzile’s not been keeping up.”

            “Kel, you’re priceless. Giving the old bat a set-down will make my week.”

            Lachran arrived, scrubbed and full of apologetic explanations about being caught up in training, and they headed for the Ballroom. Kel was surprised her nephew had been released—pages never were merely to be with family, service being in high demand at events this big—and expanded her guesses about what might be happening. The servant at the door was the man who’d been on duty for the Queen’s Ball, who bowed to her, winked at Irnai, and again got the pronunciation right. They were in family order so only Lachran and the children were behind Kel, and by the time they entered everyone seemed to be applauding. She provoked a particular outburst but was getting used to it and with everyone in, her parents headed confidently forwards to an area below the dais where representatives of the realms’ great families stood around the King and Queen, seated with Roald and Shinko—Duke Baird with Duchess Wilina, Haryse’s cousin; Duke Gareth and Duchess Cythera; Lord Imrah, a widower; and Padraig; Duke Turomot was there, beside a table with paraphernalia of formal oath-taking. Everyone was in robes and Shinko in face-paint, but Kel could tell she was excited.

            When they were assembled and had made bows and curtseys Jonathan and Thayet rose.

            “My lords and ladies, honoured guests, we begin this evening with a rare and pleasant duty of reward. Everyone knows that my forebear  Jonathan I wrote in The Scroll of Salute that four houses were the shield of Tortall—Legann, Naxen, haMinch, Queenscove—and it stays true. Duke Gareth serves me as his father served mine, and haMinchi lords hold Our northern border as they have ever done, too often, as now, against Scanran attack. In the Immortals War the greatest action was at Legann, where Lord Imrah was a tower of strength. And all know of the fearsome losses Duke Baird and Duchess Wilina sustained in that conflict, as well as His Grace’s outstanding service as the realm’s chief healer for more than thirty years. No praise can be too great.”

            All that was true, and if Kel hadn’t been as impressed with Duke Gareth as with the others she was happy to join general applause.

            “Yet those great houses no longer stand alone, for in Our reign another has risen to give the best service any king could desire. Though Mindelan was enrolled in the Book of Copper only three generations past none have done more in the last two decades. The painstaking work of securing Our Yamani alliance could not have been carried forward without Baron Piers, and though too few appreciate it without the great valour of Baroness Ilane, who slew Scanran raiders to defend the treasured Swords of Law and Duty, winning favour of His Imperial Majesty. And all know their labours culminated this year in the marriage of Our heir. And yet there is more.”

            All that was true too but Kel was getting the strangest feeling. That her parents deserved recognition she knew, and was delighted by it, but what the King had in mind she was less and less sure.

            “Baron Piers’s eldest daughter, Patricine, Lady noh Akaneru, herself made an important Yamani alliance, and stands high in His Imperial Majesty’s favour. Lady Demadria haMinch cannot be here as she is increasing, but Lady Adalia of Nond and Lady Oranie of Hannalof are here with their husbands. Lord Avinar is also absent, continuing his work at the City of the Gods where he too rises high. And beyond this, Mindelan has given four knights to Tortall in this generation alone, with another in training. Sir Anders and Sir Inness, absent directing winter defence of Mindelan, and Sir Conal, who is here, have each given most valiant service, Sir Anders at personal cost, and We have no doubt Sir Lachran will do the same when he shall join the roll. And there is Lady Knight Commander Keladry, who has already done more in this war than any other, rescuing hundreds of Our subjects foully kidnapped, slaying a vile necromancer, burning King Maggur’s own castle, and building in New Hope the finest strongpoint in many generations while pioneering treaties with spidrens and basilisks.”

            The last words were drowned by applause that the King let run its course before holding up a hand. Kel knew she was flushed and wished he hadn’t enumerated everything again; at least he’d left out the gods and her siblings had all been mentioned, though Conal was scowling and Lachran looked as if he’d swallowed juice to find it ardent wine.

            “Now, the rules of Tortallan nobility are … complicated.” Laughter murmured round the ballroom. “Naxen and Queenscove have been ducal houses for generations, and it has become veritable tradition for a Conté king to offer a haMinchi overlord the same status and be refused, the haMinchi lords preferring their unique clan system.” He didn’t need to add that no-one not a haMinch understood its finer points, and everyone called any adult haMinch ‘my Lord’ or ‘my Lady’ on safe principle. “Lord Imrah too has twice declined promotion, declaring himself content as Count of Legann and not wishing to be dragged away from his fief more than he already is. But We insist no-one be held back from honours rightfully earned, and it is my great pleasure to declare that with the consent of all here with Us, and of the Council of Nobles, Mindelan today becomes a ducal house, in recognition of its very great collective service. My Lord Baron, Lady Baroness, come forward.”

            Kel was dumbstruck as were the rest of the family, even Conal’s jaw dropping. In her wildest dreams she’d never imagined the King had such a thing in mind, but in some ways even stranger to her was the wild cheering that broke out. She knew Shinko was a darling and Roald’s marriage popular, so her parents, very much a public face of the Yamani alliance, were also popular, aided by their lack of noble arrogance; but what she hadn’t grasped inwardly, despite everything, was that above all she was popular, the one great hero to emerge so far from the dragging Scanran War, whose deeds had tangible form in the dead killing device and rescued children; who was firmly associated with the burgeoning self-defence classes and new Protector’s Maids and walked respectfully among commoners on the streets; whom the gods themselves protected against the unspeakable slurs of a senior lord and his cronies. The core of the old nobility, standing with the King, were evidently content; new nobility saw the first dukedom of the Book of Copper as an affirmation of their own status; and city merchants and elders were more than willing to embrace any honour done Kel—so all cheered, loud and long, while Piers and Ilane signed the necessary documents, quieting only to let them kneel and swear new oaths of loyalty.

            “My Lords and ladies, honoured guests, I give you His Grace Duke Piers and Her Grace Duchess Ilane of Mindelan.”

            Cheering raised the roof but even so Kel heard a piercing trill of approval that could only be Kitten, bouncing beside a grinning Daine and Numair, and a deep rumble from Tkaa, standing beside them; perhaps fortunately, Kawit was still sleeping off her long talk with Diamondflame. Adie, Orie, Merovec, Ortien, Conal, and Lachran were dazed but the children seemed to think all straightforwardly in order, and Kel, stood in better stead than she knew by experience of walking in the lower city, was able to smile more naturally and prompt others to their own applause of her Mama and Papa.

            The ball that followed was for Mindelans if no-one else a very odd experience, with every encounter a cue for intense congratulations mixed with a degree of adulation that flummoxed all of them but that Kel and the children coped with best—if only because after spidrens, basilisks, stormwings, gods, and dragons, there was a limit to how overwhelming mortals could manage to be.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve — Hardship

January–February

 

The aftermath of the ball was disconcerting. Although the family gained noble precedence only her parents’ styles changed—but as Thayet gleefully informed Kel at glaive practice her distaff border should now have a gold rim. Lalasa happily added one to the Mindelan sigil on her dresses and, sceptical of Kel’s skills with a needle, promised to do the kimonos if they were sent with the damaged finery; she did however supply enough gold thread for Kel to do her flag at New Hope.

            Then there were letters of congratulation. So many poured in that the interesting thing wasn’t who had sent one, but who hadn’t. Even Lord Burchard, whom no-one had seen since he’d staggered from the Chamber, sent a stiff note, as minimal as his apology, but still; Kel hardly expected one from Tirrsmont or Torhelm but did note without surprise that the conspicuous absentees among senior nobility were Genlith and Runnerspring. Among the letters were also, to Kel’s astonishment, a number requesting patronage or money. These she read carefully, but as all were from men she’d never heard of and offered neither reason nor detail she sent polite refusals. More difficult were two from complete strangers proposing marriage, apparently sincerely. They were the only romantic professions she’d ever received save Cleon’s, and deranged as they had to be she found herself contemplating them with something twisting in her heart. Several attempts at replies went into the fireplace before she found a brisk military tone to say that, as they’d never met and almost certainly had nothing in common, marriage seemed unwise, adding that if she might take the liberty of assuming the writers moved by patriotic admiration it might be better expressed by supporting the refugees she’d been fortunate enough to rescue.  Finishing, she nearly bundled all the letters into the fire but after some thought arranged them by subject and sender and filed them, thinking that if such correspondence continued she’d need a private clerk.

            In some ways more disturbing was the apology from Conal. Returning with the children from a visit to Kawit and Kitten on the day after the ball, she found her brother waiting, and when he declined to come in sent Tobe and Irnai inside. Conal was clearly uncomfortable but determined to do right by his own lights.

            “My Lord of Cavall informs me it is proven by truthspell Tirrsmont lied about what happened at New Hope. That he perjured himself and was beyond question himself the one to utter threats and obscenities. I apologise for not believing you, Keladry.”

            Kel considered him. “Thank you, Conal, but you didn’t give me a chance to say anything you didn’t believe—you assumed I was at fault.”

            “Tirrsmont swore it was true. I could hardly doubt him.”

            “I understand your logic but it depends on the person swearing having honour to swear by, and I’m sorry but Tirrsmont has none. Out of interest, did you know Sir Voelden tried to run me through during a tilt? He hit my breastplate and cracked a rib.”

            “He says it was an accident.”

            “He told me that too, but refused to swear it by gods’ oath. And this isn’t for public consumption, Conal, but thought it didn’t name Voelden the elemental of the Chamber said Joren paid at least one knight to try to kill me in the tilting lane.”

            “The Chamber said?” Conal’s voice was incredulous.

            “The King will confirm it. We spoke to the elemental together the day after the Queen’s Ball.”

            Incredulity became bewilderment. “You and the King spoke to the Chamber.”

            “Yes. I can’t tell you what about, I’m afraid, but you must know the Chamber sent me after Blayce, and there was unfinished business.”

            “I don’t understand you at all, Keladry, and talking to the Chamber seems all wrong. But I am sorry I did not have faith in my own sister.”

            “I’m sorry about that too, but glad to be on better terms. I hate being at odds with family. Do you know where you’ll be going when the fighting starts again?”

            He accepted the topic gratefully. “Mindelan, so Inness and Tilaine can get away for a bit. There’s concern about another attack, though I don’t understand why Maggur should target us especially.”

            “I’m afraid it’s my fault—I did burn down his clanhome and as my report undoubtedly made its way to Hamrkeng he knows who to blame. That’s why New Hope is so fortified.”

            “Oh. I see.” He frowned. “Well, I hope you don’t feel guilty about it—we have to hit Maggur every way we can.”

            “Yes, we do. I just wish we could do it directly and not have to kill so many other people first.”

            “But they’re Scanrans.”

            “Many are forced to fight, Conal—Maggur holds clanchiefs’ wives and families hostage. I’m not saying he doesn’t have supporters but a lot of people who’ve died didn’t want to fight us. I’m tired of it. Tell me, how many men had you killed at twenty?”

            “Twenty? None, I don’t think. My first real action was later that year, when the Immortals War began.”

            “Huh. Well, I lost count this last year. It was a round dozen before I was eighteen, from hillmen to bandits and suchlike I fought with the Own. Then I saw action against Scanrans and by now it’s scores. I dream of their faces.”

            She wasn’t sure he understood at all, and not for the first time wondered if his problem wasn’t at root simply that the Mindelan brains had skipped over him, leaving his world an often fearsome and puzzling place. But they parted on better terms than for a long time, and if they’d never be as close as she was to Anders and Inness they were no longer enemies. Her mother was pleased to hear of Conal’s apology, if as surprised as Kel that he hadn’t made the connection between her report and the wolfship threat; but both parents were less happy about her determination to return to New Hope at the first break in the weather.

            Of that there was little prospect, however. The cold lingered with increasingly dirty snow, and in the north winter was by all accounts severe. Brodhelm’s reports by spellmirror to Vanget, an abstract of which he included in a summary relay to Corus, spoke of deep snow and bitter nights, sentries relieved half-hourly, basilisks helping keep stables safely warm, and retreat to the caves. Quenuresh and her kin had come in to a side-chamber in Immortals’ Row; the centaurs hadn’t but Whitelist had requested to use the corral and extra hay. Along the border the picture was the same, deep snow extending from Frasrlund east of Northwatch and south of Bearsford, and everyone hunkered down, preferably close to a fire. Geese and owls relaying information to Daine reported the same across Scanra, except the snow was even deeper, smaller rivers and lakes frozen, though the Vassa, thankfully, was too swift and turbulent for more than icy margins.

            Kel had never had real expectation of being able to return before February, and probably March, but found herself fretting all the same—as if there were anything she could do if she were there except shiver with everyone else. It had been the same last year, waiting after her Ordeal to travel north when the roads reopened, but then she’d had the puzzle of Blayce and logistical work with Raoul to keep her occupied. This year she had no distractions, and though she threw herself into glaive work with pages, forced indoors by snow, they had a curriculum Padraig had followed Wyldon in expanding to include more applied military history, tactics, and strategy. With Alanna Kel prosecuted her case for slingwork, demonstrating how effective they could be, and had the satisfaction of seeing the First Company of the Own make a start on basic skills and how slingmen might be deployed behind archers.

            The long wait gave time to do other things. Most importantly Daine agreed to boost Alder’s capacity. It took a long morning, with the tension of wild magic filling the air; Tobe found the process fascinating and to Numair’s surprise was able to perceive patterns in the magic that swirled into Alder. Irnai was less interested but absorbed by Kawit’s stories of life before her long nap—before the rise of the Thanic Empire, from the collapse of which Tortall, Barzun, Galla, Maren, Tusaine, Tyra, and the Bazhir tribes had emerged.

            Daine explained to Alder about barding, and once he’d had a few days to settle—“Just imagine, Kel, what it would be like to have one of the gods suddenly inflate your brain to work more like their own”—she saddled him, wrapped his legs against ice-cuts, and led him down Palace Way to Ma