Word had come at midday while the men of third company sparred and kept themselves warm while training those they'd recruited during the first slow months they'd had since the Scanran war. After the two years of fighting there had been heavy amounts of raiding from all sides, several of their neighbors thinking maybe the country had become weak after two years of battles.
He was the greenest of them there, having never been out on a call before. He'd saddled his mounts quickly and readied himself to stand in line with the others as their second in command, Domitian of Masbolle, did an inspection on the group. The older man with the easy grin joked with some of the men as he made his way down the line and gave corrections to the few who needed it. When he came up to him, he smiled and asked, "Carlen, right?"
"Yes sir," Carlen replied, nodding as the commander checked his gear and gave him a nod of approval. "I'm from Tasride."
The commander thought for a moment. "Any relation to Sir Seaver?"
Carlan nodded. "Yes sir. He's my oldest brother."
"My condolences," Dom said gravely, but with his wide easy grin still on his face.
Carlen smiled and decided to get fresh on his brother. "Thank you sir, it's been a struggle, but I've managed to get through the days."
Dom laughed outright at his reply before clapping him on the back and moving on to the next soldier in the line. The snickers of the men next to him told him his joke had passed over well, and he felt a small weight lift itself off his shoulders.
"I've been the Own over ten years," Domitan, or Dom, as he told Carlen he preferred to be called, explained as he helped Carlen and several of the men pull the crumbling remains of a building down to the ground. "And every time I think I've seen enough mud to last me a lifetime, more of it sneaks up on me!"
"Quit complaining!" Sergeant Wolset growled from down the line. "At least we're not in the snow!"
The veterans chorused agreements, and then let out a racket of cheers as they finally got the building to fall and splash into the mud below; thus wiping out the potential hazard to the town.
"So, Carlen from Tasride," Dom began later, as they and several other groups of men and villagers ate under the cover of a large, dry mess tent that had been brought along. "What brought you to the Own?"
Carlen swallowed his piece of bread and said, "My brother told me about it. Everybody knows about the work you do, but he told me more of what it was like, said he'd ridden with you for a jaunt in the war. When I said I didn't want to be a knight, he encouraged me to join if I still wanted to serve. So I waited until I was old enough and applied."
"Sounds like a smart man, your brother," Dom said kindly.
"Too bad for him we know different!" Wolset called out from across the tent.
Carlen smiled at the comment about his brother. He knew the kinds of tricks his sibling could get into. He himself had been a victim of many of them before Seaver had gone off to train as a page and later as a squire before he was knighted.
"Letters!" a man yelled; riding quickly through the town's main street. "Letters and orders!"
"Well, that's me," Dom said, handing his plate to the men assigned to the dishes and running to catch up with the courier.
Sergeant Wolset took Dom's place next to Carlan and yawned before asking, "How're you liking the Own so far?"
"I like it very much," Carlen replied. "It's hard work, but good. I'm enjoying it."
"As you should," Wolset replied. He and Carlen watched as Dom walked back over and began to hand out messages from some of the men's families and homes. "Get anything from New Hope?" Wolset asked slyly as he came closer to him and Carlen.
Dom's face acquired a look of innocence as he asked, "Now why would I be expecting a letter from all the way over there?"
Wolset smiled a knowing smile that made Carlen curious and Dom merely glared before asking, "Don't you have work to do?"
Wolset laughed and Carlen's curiosity about their words grew, but didn't ask more about it, since the rain began to fall again and they and the villagers had to run to get a lot of their gear out of the wet.
Another week passed and Carlen and the others of third company found themselves moving on from the village they'd been in to work farther north and in the woods. As they did, Carlen trained more and learned the stories of the men. They told him tales of their Knight commander Raoul, currently at home in Goldenlake to be with an ailing father and the fiery K'mir wife who had ridden with him. They talked about the work they did fighting smugglers and pirates, and helping those who needed it. Carlen found himself growing to enjoy his work more and more, making friends with his comrades in arms, who after telling stories about their work, would than talk about their friends and family.
Wolset told him about his younger sister. Newly turned sixteen and now in the Riders. Lerant, their former standard bearer and now a corporal, talked about his mother and grandfather, and cracked jokes about his crazy aunt. Qasim, who was a step above Dom in rank, talked about his tribe and several sisters at home in the desert.
"And you, sir?" Carlen asked Dom. "What about your family?"
Dom grinned. "I'm a younger son. My brothers set to inherit my fathers place soon as he's gone. My mother's a good sort, sister to the Duke Baird of Queenscove. I've got a few cousins. Used to have a whole brood, but a lot of them were taken in the Immortals war."
"Too bad that mad cousin of yours wasn't one of them!" one of the men called.
Dom laughed and slapped his knee. "If only!" he exclaimed jokingly, "Maybe than I could've snagged the Yamani bride."
"Oh, please!" Wolset replied, "Like you're not happily wrapped in the motherly blanket of your ladies love."
Dom grinned. "True, Wolset, very true. I do find myself quite happy with my courtship."
Carlen smiled as the men barbed Dom about being sappy over his lady. Later on, he was helping Wolset pack up a wagon so they could ride to their next destination when he asked, "Do a lot of the men court ladies?"
Woset thought for a few moments before saying. "Not really. Well, at least not seriously. A lot of us who're like Lerant and me, we'll court and it will be brief and not very serious at all. Mainly at times when we are the palace, and know that we'll be there for a while."
"And captain Dom?" Carlen asked as their commander yelled for them to hurry up their pace and get moving.
Wolset grinned. "Dom's another story," he explained. "He used to be like us. Wild and crazy, couldn't be tied down. He'd court the ladies, have the flings, and ride out when the Crown called. A regular heartbreaker he was."
"Then what happened?" Carlen asked.
"He met his lady love," Wolset explained. "Or rather, he finally realized he was interested in her, and she him. They'd known each other for a long time before they started courting, and they've been together for a few years now. They don't see each other often, it's hard, us men of the Own being on the move all the time and all. But we go to the north often, so they take what time they can."
Carlen opened his mouth to ask who the lady was, but one of men called for Wolset to help with some gear, and he never got the chance.
Two months later, the men found themselves escorting a group of merchants, who had a history of being attacked whenever they made their way through the mountain passes, to the old war forts Giantkiller and Mastiff. The goods were much needed in the now permanent border defense posts, and the Crown, Dom explained, didn't want to take any chances. A few days out from their destination, however, they encountered problems with hard falling rain, and the men and merchants found their journey to be made even more difficult with deep, wheel sucking mud and no end to the weather in sight.
"Great," Lerant grumbled as he and Carlen tied down oiled canvases over the kegs of flour and rice. "Just a few days away and this happened."
"How long do you think we'll be delayed?" Carlen asked.
"A week at least," Lerant replied. "The mages say this is a bad storm. The last of the rains before the winter's gonna hit. Apparently this year they wanted to make a mark."
"And we're going to be stuck out here the whole time?" Carlen asked incredulously.
"Not a chance," Lerant replied. "We'll probably stick it out for the rest of the day and tonight. It's supposed to let up a little in the morning. We'll probably move out than, travel to the nearest town, and bunk there for a few days before finishing off the trip to the forts."
"What town?" Carlen asked. "I thought everything out here was forts."
Lerant shook his head. "There's a town nearby called New Hope. It's small, but it's there. They've got good walls and good fighters. We can hole up there until we can finish up this last leg of the trip. They like us, so it shouldn't be a problem."
"Have you been there often?" Carlen asked
Lerant shrugged. "We've been there a few times. Third company helped them rebuild after their first home burned down during the Scanran war. Anytime we're in the north, we'll stop by and say hello. Help out with what we can. Camp out a bit."
Wolset had joined them during their talk and grinned at Lerant's words. "That's not the only reason." He said, elbowing Lerant and grinning wolfishly. "Tell him the other."
Lerant rolled his eyes. "No. I refuse to let myself get dragged into your merciless, petty teasing and start picking at Dom."
"You're just jealous they like him over there more than you."
"Oh, yes," Lerant replied, rolling his eyes. "I'm so envious of Dom's getting to see his crazy cousin and canoodle with his woman." Lerant tied off the rope he was holding and wiped hair out of his face. "Now if you'll excuse me," he said haughtily, but with a joking gleam in his eye, "I have things to do!" Turning on his heel he strode off and went to help with some other supplies.
Wolset was chuckling and Carlen asked, "Dom's lady is there?"
Wolset took a deep breath to stop his laughing and nodded. "Greatest catch he could've ever gotten," he said. He clapped Carlen on the shoulder and dragged him off to the horses. "C'mon, let's get them tucked away before they decide they want to be wild."
Later in the night, as Carlen stood with Dom on lookout duty, he noticed his commander had a cheerful look on his face despite the ice cold water pelting down on them from above. Carlen spoke to ask, "Are you excited to see her, sir?"
Dom blinked and was silent for a few moments before he grinned at him. "Told you, did they?"
Carlen shrugged. "It came up when we were discussing the town. Sergeant Wolset said your lady is there."
"Well, they were right; she is." Dom tucked his fingers into his belt and smiled wider. "And yes, I am excited to see her. It's been about six months since I saw her last. I'm almost beginning to forget what she looks like."
"Really?" Carlen asked.
Dom laughed and shook his head. "No, not really, I'd be a horrible man if I forgot something like that. Plus, I've known her for so long, I don't think I'll ever forget anything about her."
"What's she like?" Carlen asked.
Dom was silent for several moments. Than, his gaze still focused on the forest around them, he replied, "Very kind. Smart. Independent. Stubborn as the worst mule you've ever met, but one of most loyal people you'll ever know. To her, everyone is equal, and she doesn't expect anything more from a person than she herself would be willing to give. She can be funny at times, but only when she wants to be. And if needed, she can turn serious at the drop of a hat and snap orders faster that you can say 'Scanran raider'."
Carlen listened to his commander's words as he went on to describe her more and asked, "You really love her, don't you?"
Dom sighed. "I guess you could say that I do. She's a good woman. I see myself being happy with her both now, and years down the road when I'm done with the Own...If she'll have me, of course." Dom went silent for a few moments as his thoughts focused on his lady and the possibilities of the future.
Carlen could only describe the look of peace on his commander's face as contentment. Not wanting to ruin the calm in the air, Carlen pushed down the need to ask more questions. Instead just letting the sounds of the night and the falling rain surround them instead.
Carlen and the men were readying their gear and the merchant's wagons to move out of camp when a questioning horn call sounded out of the forests depths and broke their early morning quiet. Dom signaled, and Lerant sounded off an answering call of friendship, and than the three short bursts that was the signal of third company.
There was silence for a few moments and than another call went out shouting greetings and offering aid. Lerant replied acceptance and shortly thereafter the Own and the merchants were greeted by the sight of a group of thirty riders and two knights.
"Meathead!" Carlen heard Dom call out as the two knights dismounted and removed their helmets. Wolset elbowed Carlen and said, "Sir Nealan of Queenscove, his cousin." They watched as the slightly taller of the two knights grinned and greeted Dom with a hug. Carlen noticed immediately that the other knight was female. She was slightly shorter than the two, but still tall in her own right. Her long brown hair was pinned in plaits around her head, and secured down by a wide green band that settled over her forehead and ears. He couldn't see the color of her eyes, but couldn't miss the warmth coming from them as she smiled at Dom and greeted him. "Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan," Wolset said. "She rode with us for four years as a squire."
Carlen nodded and watched as the female knight he knew his brother called friend turned and ordered her men to spread out and start pulling wagons out of the mud so they could get going.
The men, Carlen noticed, were a mix of soldiers and townspeople. All looked as if they'd seen their own fair share of fighting, but they held not the grim faces of soldiers, but instead warm smiles and joking laughs as they hitched their large mountain horses to some of the wagons and urged their animals to heave.
Carlen had been working with Wolset on their wagon full of tools with difficulty when a set of hands littered with scars placed themselves next to his on the wagon, and a mail clad shoulder threw itself into the wood, giving the wagon a jolt and forcing it to slowly start inching forward through the thickness of the muddy road.
"Lady Kel," Wolset grunted cheerfully. "You're looking well."
Carlen looked and saw that the hands belonged to the lady knight. He saw that her dreamy hazel eyes were laughing as she turned and placed her hands under the wagon bed and put her back to it before pushing with the strength of her feet and legs. "Kind of you to say," she said, ignoring the mud flying up from the road onto her clothes and hair. "New recruit?" she asked Wolset, looking at Carlen.
Wolset nodded and mimicked her move with the wagon. "Introduce yourself, lad."
"Carlen," Carlen breathed heavily, as their wagon finally pulled free and began to make its way down the road at a quicker pace. "Of Tasride."
Lady Kel's gaze grew curious as she asked. "Seaver's brother?"
Carlen nodded as she said softly, her eyes smiling and full of mirth, "My condolences, dear boy."
Wolset laughed and she smiled as he replied, "Thank you, lady Kel. Your sentiment is too kind."
Kel grinned wickedly. "Damn right it is. I must advise you about not mentioning your brother's name around Neal anytime soon. He's still recovering from the last time Seaver visited."
"What happened?" Wolset asked.
"Did you see his haircut?" Kel asked.
Carlen and Wolset looked and saw that the knight, who was checking a sniffling merchant with his gift, had shaved most of his hair off to an almost nonexistent length.
"It's not on purpose," Kel informed them, her laughter barely contained while the smile on her face was not.
Throughout the day, Carlen made four trips back and forth from their camp to New Hope. He helped with wagons, provided security for other groups, helped switch goods off of wagons that had broken, and helped to catch any errant cows or pigs that tried to make an escape when the merchants weren't looking.
After the first group with goods rode out, the lady knight stuck close to New Hope as she continued to help. She plowed through the mud with the men of the Own to get the merchant caravan up the steep incline that lead up to a heavily walled in town with the words "New Hope" carved into a sign that hung among tattered war banners of conquered raiding parties from across the border.
"They don't like being picked at," Wolset explained to Carlen's question about it.
Lerant had been sharing water with them and grinned at Wolset's answer. "That's putting it mildly," he said.
Wolset shrugged and Carlen asked, "What do you mean?"
Wolset leaned back on a nearby crate and explained about the Scanran war, New Hope's origins as a refugee camp, and what had happened with Blayce the Gallan. He told about the lady knight being one who didn't let her people go untrained or unprepared, and the great risk she'd taken to get her people back after they'd been captured and taken over the border.
"They were going to disband the camp, after the war," Wolset explained. "But many of the people wanted to stay, having made New Hope the town it now is. Lady Kel convinced the crown that it was in a good location for a border community, and worth keeping here. Which is why they still are all these years later." He gestured across the gates toward the knight, who was chiding Dom for something. The dog happily chewing on a piece of meat at his feet a good indicator as to why.
"My brother always speaks very highly of her," Carlen said, remembering the many letters Seaver had sent him while he'd been away training as a page. They had always been filled with stories about a tall girl who was great at math and good to have in a fight. "He once told me she's one of the best friends he's ever had. And that he'd fight by her side any day."
"How could he not?" Wolset asked. "She's a good knight. Fair, trust worthy, dependable. She rode with us for four years as a squire. And we rode with her in the war. So we know, first hand, how good a person she can be."
"Don't ever get on her bad side, though," Lerant said. "She may be a knight, but gods protect you if you hurt her or one of her people."
Wolset nodded agreement. "Lady Kel is infamous for treating everyone equal. She doesn't expect anything more out of a person than she'd be willing to give to them. It's why she's so well liked by many of those who are both noble and common."
"It's also why she and Dom fit so well together as a couple," Lerant said casually. "They both serve, and neither expects the other to give up their work for the other."
Carlen raised his eyebrows at that. "She is Dom's lady?" he asked, turning to watch as the lady knight laughed at Dom's being surrounded by a crowd of the dogs friends, hungry for their own treats.
"Of course," Wolset said. "What did you expect?"
Carlen shrugged. "Well, a lady, for one thing."
Lerant snickered and Wolset smiled. "Kel is a lady, Carlen. She might not look like it, but she's more of a noble lady than any of those fine dressed women we see at court. Tortall's knights are lucky to have her among their ranks. And Dom was lucky enough to have snagged her heart."
As Carlen watched, Kel's laugh turned to smiles, and than blushes as Dom took her hand and kissed its palm with the dogs swarming around them. She had just pulled it back when someone on the wall yelled for more. Dom grinned and Kel shook her head before he grabbed her quickly and leaned her back into a kiss Carlen had only seen in a players show. Cheers rang out among those on the wall and in the crowd, and Carlen smiled as he, Wolset, and Lerant pounded their fists on the crate to join in on the fun. The dogs at the couple's feet howled encouragement as the couple took a breath, smiled at one another, and then went back for more.