“At least the countryside is pretty,” Kel said mildly in response to yet another of Neal’s rants.
“Pretty!” Neal exclaimed. “It’s dust, endless rows of half dead fields, dust, trees, more trees, more dust and the great health hazard, dust! There’s nothing pretty about it.”
“I thought you and Sir Alanna spent time in the Great Desert,” Kel said.
“We did,” Neal replied. “It doesn’t mean I liked it.”
Kel considered the land around them. He was right about the dust, but the fields weren’t completely dead, mostly just full of drying grass, the crops already harvested weeks before the height of summer hit and the dry period began. The people round here knew how to cope with their hot dry summers, unlike the crotchety knight she travelled with.
Neal’s voice interrupted Kel’s musings again.
“This dust is a blight on all who wish to live and breathe to ripe old age. It’s a festering pest encouraging disease to flourish. Why anyone would live in a place where the very air is like breathing dirt...”
Kel sighed internally, keeping her face impassive. She was sure Neal’s ‘health checks’ were important. They were, after all, gathering and sharing information about the state of the realm and its people, aiding their majesties in improving the health and productivity of their subjects. She would just rather be at the border, or better yet off adventuring. Surely there were monsters to fight somewhere. She felt like hired muscle to a caravan, not a full knight with deeds to her name and an itching for more.
She acknowledged to herself that Neal could hardly be expected to travel in such outlying and far-flung areas alone – and there weren’t many who could keep him company long without an unfortunate desire to punch him in the face. Not that she didn’t share the sentiment at times, but she knew how to remain Yamani calm in the face of trying circumstances. And, she reminded herself as his caustic words on ‘the idiocy of nobles who had no care for their people’s lungs’ intruded on her thoughts again, he was her friend. Her homesick friend, at that. Besides, Yuki would be most displeased if Kel returned her husband in pieces.
As if following her train of thought, Tobe muttered to her.
“Did we really promise to give him back in full health, milady? And even so, do you think a gag would hurt?” Jump thumped his tail in agreement, and even Peachblossom let out a snort.
“Hey!” Said Neal. “I’ll have you know I’m imparting useful and – that isn’t smoke from a chimney.”
Kel followed his gaze along to the rolling hills before them, from which a large column of black smoke was rising.
“You’re right,” she said grimly. “That’s a forest fire.”
It didn’t take much discussion before Kel had them riding down the road towards the fire. They were all painfully aware that Twopines, the village they had been heading towards, was in the fire’s likely path.
Kel offered a prayer to Mithros as they rode up to the village. As they’d feared, the fire was in the forest that flanked it, and the wind was blowing the smoke – and therefore the flames – directly towards it. At least the villagers seemed well aware of their peril. Some were hurriedly clearing back a fire break from behind their houses. The village square was bustling with purpose, and a thickset man, standing on an old barrel and gesticulating wildly, had an evacuation well in hand.
“Milords, we’re right thankful to see you,” he said as he saw them, hopping off his barrel and hurrying over.
“You have a safe place to wait out the fire?” Neal said. “What of your supplies?”
“Yes, yes, sir knight, we’ve had fires like this before, though not for ten years or more, and this looks to be a bad one. We have the caves past the mill pond, they’re deep enough, and used for storage year round as it is. The young ones are there already, with the animals. The fittest of us are cutting the fire breaks back from the village. Begging your pardon, but we could use your assistance if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Of course we’ll help. Do you want some extra hands clearing the brush?”
The headman started at hearing Kel’s voice, higher than he expected. His double take was comical in its exaggerated excess as he stammered for words. “Oh, no sir, uh, Milady ... I beg your pardon ... are you?” He broke off in confusion, the unlikely sight of a female warrior momentarily distracting him from the concerns of the approaching fire.
“She’s Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan.” Tobe said helpfully, with the patience of one who has explained his knight mistress many times before, and the smirk of a servant proud of his mistress.
“Headsman Gideon of Twipines at your service.”
“And if you don’t want our assistance with the clearing, what would you have us do?” Kel said.
“It’s the children, well, not the really young children, but they’re young still. It’s a tradition you see, round this time of year when the berries are ripe, and the main harvest’s in, it’s time for the preserves. The youths go into the forest to do the picking.”
“Gods,” Neal breathed, understanding dawning. “Your children are in the forest?”
“They’re in a steep valley with tall trees. It has the best berries you see, for the fine jellies. The trees are most likely masking the smoke from the children’s notice. It’s in the path of the fire, and the steep valley side will act as a wind funnel and turn it into a death trap. We can’t get to them in time, it takes hours to get there on foot – but on horseback there might be a chance.”
Kel’s thoughts raced. Surely there was no need for herself, Neal and Toby to all go, or their spare mounts and gear.
“Neal, you should stay with the villagers. Some will need medical attention, and your Gift may help against the fire. Headman Gideon, it would be beneficial if you could provide a guide.”
“Of course, of course. Bret!” he shouted. “Bret knows these woods well. He’d have gone after the children himself already, but we know they’re too far up the valley on foot; they left before light this morning.”
“I’m going with you,” Tobe said quickly, his face determined. Kel thought of ordering him to stay behind, but the argument would waste precious time, and he might be of use. She nodded to him.
Neal made a face, but agreed readily enough with Kel, gathering the reins on the pack horse and heading towards the caves. At Kel’s order Jump whuffed his disapproval, but he trotted behind Neal. Bret swung up on Hoshi, Kel’s spare mount and three of them rode fast toward the forest.
They had not been riding long, following the more open trails, when they came unexpectedly upon a mining camp. Kel muttered curses to herself, angry she had forgotten its existence, clearly marked on the maps she and Neal and been using. Tobe, sensing her annoyance, reminded her that the villagers hadn’t told them about it either, and the camp must have had more than a hundred people in it, all in the path of the firestorm. Bret shifted uneasily, admitting that the camp and the village were not one the best of terms, and the villagers had not thought to warn them of the approaching fire.
“Why would we think to?” he said defensively. “They’re a foul lot, most of them sent here for hard labour, Gods only know their crimes. We don’t want their type round our families.”
The camp was scratched out of the forest, perched next to the opening of a deep mine. Surrounded by slag heaps and covered in dust, it was a sorry sight.
The camp foreman was a wiry man with a squint and a scowl. He may have been a competent camp manager – although given the levels of filth and the downtrodden nature of the men Kel saw she doubted it. He was certainly useless in a crisis. It had taken precious minutes to convince the guards at the front to fetch him, and now he was here Kel was fast running out of patience. He fussed over little matters, apparently more concerned with Kel’s “Claim to have authority” than with the fire she warned of.
Finally Kel snapped at him.
“As a knight of the realm, due to the immediacy of the crisis, I am able to direct you, and your camp, as required. I require your sergeants to have the men gather what supplies they can, and head for the deep places in your mine the fire will not reach.” Peachblossom bared his teeth at the man, while Tobe puffed himself up in an endeavour to intimidate. The foreman folded under the weight of a noble with a mission, or perhaps from the ice in Kel’s hard glare.
Bret’s anxious presence at her side was a constant reminder of the village youths somewhere in the narrow valley picking berries unaware.
“There are children in that forest. The brush is too dense for easy riding. Who are your fastest runners, your best woodsmen?”
A grizzled man stepped forward; he had a hard look to him, but clearly kept his head much better than the foreman, and was able to say in a clear voice. “I’m Sergeant Barnes, Milady, and our best’d be Whiskers, he does most of the hunting. Jup and Monroe, too, Jup’s the fastest, and Monroe’s our best tracker.”
Kel took a deep breath, and kept her face steady and voice calm as she sent men into the path of the fire. She wished she could go herself, but knew this last section of deeper brush was best traversed on foot by those who knew the way; she would only be a hindrance. “Very well, Sergeant Barnes, please send all three of them to search for Twopines’ children. Have them fan out separately up the valley, and return to the mines for safety with the children as they find them. This man here, Bret, of Twopines, will tell your men the children’s likely locations, and search with them.”
The miners had all been sent down inside the mine to wait out the fire, taking with them what supplies they could. Whiskers and Monroe had already returned from their search. Eighteen young people had gone berry picking. Whiskers returned with four and Monroe and Bret together with seven. Six were still missing. Elsa, the eldest of the Twopines group, explained that the missing children had gone deeper into the valley, looking for a favourite picnic spot, a waterfall by some old caves. Kel felt rising hope at the thought that they might already have found the caves, which might be enough to provide shelter. At any rate, there was nothing more she could do now. Already the smoke was thickening the air, the acrid taste less bitter in her mouth than the thought of failing the children still caught outside. Even as she wished to help them she ordered the miners and children alike to move deeper into the tunnel network.
Jup, the slightest runner, hadn’t returned with the others. He came staggering in late, breath heavy from smoke and running. After gulping tea for his cough he reported to Kel, Foreman Wentz and Sergeant Bates. He had found the children, but had been at the top a steep cliff, and they were at the bottom. With the fire fast approaching, and given the number of children, he couldn’t reach them and get them back up the cliff.
They found shelter in cave, he explained. “But it’s too shallow, mistress. I know smoke, fire – that cave, they’ll die in there, breathing the bad air.” He stopped to cough, long and rasping, and took another sip of the sweet tea. “There’s a crack – I know these mines, Lady Knight, lived in ‘em three years. Die in ‘em, most like. The old section, it almost meets up with the river, down by the waterfall. I couldn’t find it from the outside, didn’t even try, but if we cut through...”
Kel nodded, thinking furiously.
The camp foreman broke in. He had been cowed for a time, especially when he had understood the gravity of the situation, out in the open with the fire approaching. Apparently he felt safer in the mines, surrounds by the men he was normally in charge of. He began to bluster.
“See here, young lady, these mines are a delicate operation. The tunnels should not be interrupted. Cutting a hole in the path of the fire will only put as all at risk. I will not allow it.”
“They’re our children, you unfeeling pond scum. Thinking only of your own hide, a backwoods bully.”
Kel raised her hand to stop Bret’s tirade, and turned to Sergeant Barnes. “Is Foreman Wentz correct?”
“Likely not, Ma’am. I know the route he’s talking about, it’s down in the old section. Shouldn’t affect anything up here, the tunnels are more than long enough.”
“Then we’ll do it. No more objections, Foreman Wentz, or you can answer to the King’s representative as to why you left children to die that we could have helped.” Kel stared down the foreman, till he dropped his eyes. Satisfied, she turned back to Barnes.
“I need to some of your men to dig, and more to haul scraps. Additionally, five volunteers to accompany me in finding the children once we can get out.”
“I’ll go with you.” Tobe said, chin up in determination.
“I’m going.” Bret leapt in.
The men nearby glanced at each other. Some shuffled their feet. One spat on the ground.
“Why should we risk our lives for those village brats,” he muttered.
“I’ll go too,” said Jup. “I’ve got a fair idea of where they are. I reckon you’ll need me to find ’em easily.”
That broke the stillness of the other men, and more volunteered to leave the mine, while others quickly formed a working party under Sergeant Barnes’ command. Kel was relieved there were enough volunteers that she could insist that Tobe stay behind. While he was stronger than he had been when she met him, he was still a weakling beside the miners who dug hard rocks each day. The children might need to be carried. Besides, she was selfishly happy he wasn’t going out into the fire.
As soon as the men widened the crack enough Jup wriggled through, as the slightest and their guide. Kel followed quickly as the miners continued to swing their picks and enlarge the gap. They fed a rope through the gap, leaving one end tied securely. Wetting her burnoose in the stream, Kel gestured for the other to do the same with their scarves and tied it over her mouth and nose. They swam across the narrow stream, and Kel was glad for the added moisture as protection from the fire.
They could hear the roar of the fire now, and the smoke was thick as fog, blocking even the nearby trees from view. Jup took the lead, and they stumbled together up the short hill, towards the cliff face the children sheltered under, and which Jup had stood at the top of and been unable to climb down. A log crashed down the bank, sending glowing hot embers in all directions.
“Mithros,” cursed one of the men, jumping back. “We can’t get closer – this is madness.” Even Bret backed away from the fire, unwilling to push on.
Kel shook her head, and moved to the front. The smoke was thicker still, but she could hear the children now, crying in panic. “Here.” She called out to them. “This way, come over here.”
They responded to her shouts, and with great relief the two groups met up. More burning logs were crashing down the bank, and one fell in front of a stumbling little girl, blocking her path. Kel grabbed the log, throwing off to one side. Ignoring the pain in her hands, she carried the girl and staggered with the rest, back along the rope, through the stream and to the relative clarity and coolness of the mine opening.
Tobe helped them in through the gap, and back towards the main group. The smoke was lessened considerably, until the main smell of it was coming from their clothes, not the air. Finally they reached the newer mine section, and the separated Twopines children held a happy reunion. Kel watching them with a smile, while Tobe fussed around her. He sat her down and tended to her burns, wrapping her in a blanket to ward off the chill of damp clothes.
He looked at Kel glumly. “Sir Neal’s gonna to be right cross with us, Milady, with your hands burnt and the smoked lungs.”
Kel coughed a laugh. “I’ll put up with his fussing gladly for some of his cough syrup,” she replied.
They stayed two weeks with the villagers, helping rebuild the houses, all of which had been at least somewhat burnt. Many were damaged beyond repair and listed crazily, just burnt out shells. Neal had indeed been cross with Kel and her injuries, and fussed over them with care. She was pleased the villagers and miners needed enough attention to mostly keep their mother hen distracted from her own recovery.
While the caves had kept the villagers, Neal, and what belongings they could store safe from the flames, the destruction was great. They were all on short rations, as the people settled in for a hard winter, and building was furious in an effort to have proper shelter before the rains came.
Kel kept herself occupied helping around the camp, and tried to help with menial chores in the village. The villagers, however, would barely let her fetch her own food. They were beyond grateful for the rescue of their children, which they attributed entirely to Kel, despite her protestations as to the miners’ more significant part. Her bandaged hands, Bret’s stories and the tale the children told of Kel coming for them out of the smoke convinced the village of her heroism.
It was the afternoon on the start of the third week that a squad of men on horseback were spotted riding up the road. Kel’s bandages had already been removed, but she was still allowed to do little. Neal was occupied with a young man who had broken an arm while clearing his house. A somewhat reluctant Tobe was helping him set it. Kel walked out alone to meet the newcomers, delighted with an excuse to get away. She smiled as their standard become visible. It was a squad from Third Company of the King’s Own.
“We heard there was a fire, convicts and heroics. Naturally you’re here,” Dom drawled as they rode up. “Had a busy week?”
“We made some friends, helped them move, found a picnic, had a swim, did some chores – nothing special.”
“Really, Lady Knight, couldn’t you leave something for us to do next time?”
“You can do something this time,” Kel said cheerfully. “There’s carpentry to be done, these people need supplies, and the mine needs to be guarded and rebuilt.”
Dom gave her a suspicious look. “You seem entirely too cheerful, given the thought of you and hammers has much of the Own wincing in sympathy.”
Kel thought with relief of soon being back on the road with Neal and Tobe. “Neal has a very important task for the Crown, you see. I’m afraid we can’t dally here.”