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They came to Corus as the last leaves fell from the trees. The Grand Progress was over at last.
Feeling obsessed, Kel went to the Chapel of the Ordeal as soon as she left her gear in her room. Midwinter would not come for nearly two months. She saw dust on the benches, though altar and sun disk had been cleaned recently.
They must come every month, Kel thought, walking down the aisle, whether this place needs dusting or not. A giggle that tasted nervous bubbled up in her throat. She swallowed it, ignoring her brain as it clamored to know why she kept doing this to herself. She wiped her hands on her breeches and laid her palms against the iron door.
For a moment she had the oddest fancy that something in the metal breathed. You again.
"Yes, of course it's me," she whispered. "I'm proving to myself that I'm not afraid of you."
But you are, that strange not-voice replied.
"I like lying to myself. It's fun. Would you just please do it?"
Cleon stood halfway across a gra.s.sy meadow, longsword in hand. A blond man with tags of fur braided into his beard rode down on him, one handgripping a big-bladed axe. Kel tried to scream, only to find she couldn't. Cleon ducked, letting the rider pa.s.s him by.
The blond man yanked his steed to a halt and dismounted, gripping the haft of his axe with confidence. Roaring, he charged Cleon.
Cleon blocked the swings of the axe, then tried to cut in under the other man's guard. The blond man - Scanran, from his clothes - was fast, dancing out of reach, then lunging back in with that murderous axe. They circled, looking for an opening. The only sounds Kel heard were their panting and the swish of meadow gra.s.s. She tried to move, tried to get to Cleon, but she was helpless, frozen in place.
Cleon darted to the side, slashed at the foe, and stumbled, falling to the ground. Kel heard him curse. He struggled to get to his feet. The Scanran was on him with a triumphant yell. He raised the axe and brought it down.
The Scanran was gone. Kel was free. She ran through the gra.s.s, sobbing, hunting for Cleon. She nearly fell over him. He was so white that his summer freckles stood out on his skin. A huge slash from his left shoulder to the ribs on his right side bled sluggishly. Somehow he was still alive.
Kel had no belt knife, no edged weapon at all. She took his and hastily cut strips from her tunic. She wadded the rest of it into a long pad and laid it over that dreadful wound, then worked to tie it down, to hold the pad secure until a healer could be found. Within minutes the pad was soaked. She screamed for a healer and hauled Cleon's dead weight up. She fumbled, supporting his head on her shoulder to keep pressure on the wound with her hands.
No healer came. Cleon never opened his eyes. She didn't know how long she'd been holding him before she realized that the bleeding had stopped. So had his breath. He was gone.
This time she drew away from the iron door slowly. She had to prove that she was as strong as the Chamber of the Ordeal. There had to be some gesture she could make, to prove it would not break her.
It took Kel time to call moisture into her paper-dry mouth. When she had it, she spat on the ground in front of the Chamber. Then she turned and walked out.
The weeks before Midwinter were quiet. The court had gotten all the parties and banquets it could stand, and everyone worried about the situation in the north. Kel looked in vain for Cleon, Neal, and Owen. By Midwinter she had to face it: they had stayed. It was going to be a long winter. She couldn't even hope for letters. Little came south once the snows began to fall.
The only excitement to Midwinter was the squires' Ordeals, and the fear that the Chamber would break more young men. Each day Kel went to the Chapel of the Ordeal, watching the iron door with her hands fisted in her lap. Though she had no close friends among the fourth-year squires, she liked Balduin and Yancen. They and all the other fourth-years emerged from the Chamber to be made knights, with no deaths or failures. Kel shook their hands and wished them well. She and they knew that, come spring, they would be sent to the border.
The holiday over, Third Company looked for work. They went out into the Royal Forest, visiting every village. They hunted game and helped to repair snow and ice damage. Seeing people's relief when they appeared in isolated villages lit a fire inside Kel. She remembered that she wanted to be a knight not to play at killing someone for an audience's entertainment, but to help people.
One February morning Raoul decided that Kel could learn a great deal by working on Third Company's supplies. She was given sheafs of lists. To make sure the company had all that was on them and that what they had was in good condition, Kel inspected leather and tack, sacks of flour and grain, barrels of dried apples and beans. One afternoon she reviewed the shoes of every horse belonging to the Own and gave orders for those that should be replaced. Another day she went to suppliers of medicinal and edible herbs to restock after the demands of the progress. She did her best to be careful with their money, with mixed results.
"I swear," she told Raoul one night, "the moment these merchants see you're working for the Crown, they add a gold n.o.ble to every price listed."
Raoul's face twitched with amus.e.m.e.nt. "I have faith in you, Kel," he replied solemnly.
It took her two weeks to see what he was up to. Enlightenment struck as she finished bargaining for canvas with a royal supplier. Once the sale was made, Kel marched back to her knight-master's rooms. He was reviewing maps on what was supposed to be his dining table, explaining them to Jump and the fascinated sparrows. Raoul looked up, saw Kel, and raised his brows.
"We're going north in the spring, aren't we?" she asked, holding out the sheaf of notes and orders. "And for a long stay at that."
"Not too long. You have to be here next Midwinter, remember." Raoul twisted from side to side, his spine crackling. "Well, Flyn owes me a gold crown. He said it would take you a month. He keeps underestimating you." Raoul shook his head. "He doesn't have your intuition."
Kel sat, her heart drumming. Border duty, with the Scanrans so bold, was as close to full-out war as she might come as a squire or knight. "You're bringing Second Company back here?"
Raoul nodded. "They've been out three years. That's a year longer than I wanted, but there was that poxy progress. Second Company needs to recruit. They're down twenty-three men." He rolled up a map of the lands around Anak's Eyrie. "I'll tell you right now, Kel, border duty will be work."
"Needed work," she pointed out.
"Badly needed," he agreed. "The warlord has another three clans under his banner. It's rare that Scanrans unite, but they do manage every twenty or thirty years. I guess they forgot what happened the last time."
"This is worse than last time." Myles of Olau stood in Raoul s open door with the king and Flyndan. "Is yours a private party, or may anyone come?"
Kel brewed tea as the visitors settled into chairs. Once she had served it, Myles said, "We have news from the north. It's not good. Join us, please, Keladry."
The king and Flyndan frowned at the plump, s.h.a.ggy knight who had been Kel's teacher in history and law. Myles showed a completely bland expression to both. Kel glanced at Raoul, who nodded. She drew up a chair.
"Every night I thank the G.o.ds for Daine," Myles said, adding honey to his tea. "Since she came to us we have sources of information year-round - we're not blind in winter." He sipped from his cup and made a sound of approval. "Maggur Rathhausak has been a busy boy. He now has nine clans under his banner. The remaining clans on their Great Council brawl over trade monopolies and blood feuds, while this southern wolf munches them up one by one."
"I don't understand," said Flyndan. "I thought it was impossible to get three Scanrans to - " He glanced at Kel and changed the word he was about to use. " - eat together, let alone fight. How did he unite nine clans sworn to drink each other's blood?"
"Warlord Maggur is clever," Myles replied. "He keeps hostages."
"What?" chorused Raoul and Flyndan.
"He spirits those dearest to the clan chiefs to his stronghold, where he keeps them safe. From a.s.sa.s.sins, he says." Myles shook his head. "If we could free them, we might unravel his army. And if wishes were pies, I'd weigh more than I do."
"Why don't your people try to free them?" asked Flyndan.
Myles's eyebrows flew toward his bald crown. "Do you know how long it takes to place an agent in a clan house?" he inquired. "Much too long to risk those I have on heroics. I need every sc.r.a.p of news they smuggle out. When you go north - "
"Me?" asked Raoul, all innocence.
"I may not get perfect information from a gaggle of clans who live only among their own blood kin and slaves, but I certainly get it here," Myles said drily. "Or did you think if Kel did the work I wouldn't notice you're stockpiling for a prolonged jaunt?"
"It's an exercise in logistics and supply," Kel said, her face as innocent as Raoul's. "He makes me study such things."
Myles began to chuckle. "Very good, my dear," he said. "Very good. If you ever want work as an agent, I hope you'll come to me."
The king shifted in his chair. "He warned me a week ago what was in the wind," he told Raoul. "You could have told me yourself, instead of letting me hear it from my intelligence chief."
Raoul fidgeted. When he spoke, his cheeks were redder than usual. "I thought you were so intent on having me dance attendance on you to reaffirm your kingliness that next you'd bid me open an etiquette academy," he growled.
Kel felt breathless. This was the man who'd told her not to beard a monarch in public! Even this small group counted as public, or so it seemed to her.
King Jonathan glared at Raoul. "You acted like a sullen, spoiled child who's told he has to do ch.o.r.es."
"I didn't take this post to spend nights bowing and fussing!" snapped Raoul, his cheeks redder yet. "I took it to do something real. If you want a dancing master, get Glaisdan and the First down here!"
The king flinched. Lord Raoul looked at him, then at Sir Myles. Very quietly Myles said, "Glaisdan of Haryse is dead."
Kel froze; so did Raoul and Flyndan. Finally Raoul asked, "What happened?" in a much softer voice.
"He heard of a late autumn raid on Carmine Tower. He thought two squads would be enough to capture the raiders. One man made it back." Myles rubbed his eyes. "He said Glaisdan misinterpreted trail signs and took them into the middle of a three-clan war party."
Kel and Flyndan made the sign against evil on their chests.
Raoul glanced down. His big hands clenched and unclenched. Then he looked at his king. "I told you he wasn't fit for a field command."
King Jonathan slumped. "You were right. I let my temper get the better of me, and now twenty men are dead. I'm sorry, Raoul. I think you know how sorry I am."
Raoul nodded. "I do know."
Kel struggled with pity. It was such a costly mistake.
The king got to his feet. "You'll go north with the first thaw, along with five Rider Groups. Try not to get killed." He looked at Kel, Flyndan, and Raoul. "I need all of you."
"I need every prisoner you can take," Myles told Raoul once the king had gone. "We don't know enough. My spies are with the clans, not the armies. We're getting wild reports of strange machines - metal beasts and walking stones. None of ours who are still alive have seen them. I need something definite." He pa.s.sed a doc.u.ment dripping ribbons and seals to Flyndan. "Another thousand crowns have been deposited in your treasury for supplies." To Kel he said, "Thank you for the tea - and good luck."
When the door closed behind Myles, Raoul rested his face in his hands. "That fathead Glaisdan," he said, his voice m.u.f.fled. "He kept telling me that one Tortallan horseman was the equal of ten northern savages."
"Maybe they are," said Flyndan dourly. "It s the eleventh savage that gets you."
They were traveling again, but the difference made Kel edgy and eager. The men called war "going to see the kraken." Krakens were sea-monsters so rare and powerful that none of the few who'd survived an encounter with one forgot the experience, just as n.o.body forgot his first encounter with war.
"We learn more of ourselves, seeing the kraken, than we can learn in ten years at home," Qasim said over that first campfire on the Great Road North.
"Speak for your own home," Lerant quipped. "My aunt Deliah was a kraken." The men chuckled.
"Only two arms," Dom insisted, mouth full. That raised a laugh.
"But you've all done battle," Kel said as the mood turned quiet again.
"So have you," Dom pointed out. "Maresgift's bandits - "
"Housekeeping," Kel replied.
"That time in the hills," Dom said.
"What time in the hills?" someone demanded.
"Or when the spidrens attacked our hunting party from the rear," added Qasim. "If that wasn't the kraken, what was it?"
Kel smiled crookedly. "That was one of my friends losing his head because spidrens killed his father," she explained.
"And the hill bandits?" Dom repeated.
"An unpleasant surprise," Kel said.
"Well, by the time you walk into the Chamber of the Ordeal, you'll have seen the kraken by anybody's terms," Lerant told her. "And then you'll know."
Then I'll know, thought Kel, rubbing Jump's chest. I'll know if I can keep my head in war.
After a day at Northwatch with General Vanget, Raoul and Flyndan led Third Company to the meadow that was to be their northern home. It was between the fiefdoms of Trebond and Carmine Tower, meant to serve as a plug for this hole in the border defenses.
Their first task was to build a permanent camp. Out of the supplies they had brought in wagons came shovels, cutting tools, and nails. Men cut down trees and turned the trunks into pointed logs, fitting them into ten-foot-wide sections. Others dug a broad ditch in the shape of a square, building up one side with the dirt they'd moved. In that side they dug a trench. The ground was sloppy and loose: early April was half-winter this far north.
At last they raised the stockade walls in the trench atop the large ditch and filled in the gaps. A crew planted sharpened logs in the outer edge of the ditch, to stop horses if not humans. When they were able to withdraw behind their wall and close the gate, everyone heaved a sigh of relief. No one liked sleeping in the open when the enemy might be close.
Work did not stop with the wall and ditch enclosures. Healers directed the placement of latrines inside the fort and helped build sheds for them. Carpenters set up the wooden skeletons of an infirmary, a mess hall and kitchen, and a corral. Raoul and Flyndan helped with every job, getting as dirty as everyone else.
Kel was put to limb-lopping and trench-digging, while the sparrows offered commentary and Jump hunted rabbits. "Don't take any does," Kel told him while the men joked. "They've got babies or they'll have them soon. Only take males." The men stopped laughing when they found that all of Jump's kills were male.
"Why don't they mention hammering and digging and sawing, when they talk about war?" Kel asked Dom over breakfast one morning. "They never talk about mud in your teeth."
He laughed. "If they did, who would be crazy enough to fight?" he asked. "Pretty girls would look oddly at a fellow if he talked about mud in his teeth, instead of the enemies he killed so they might sleep safe."
Once their camp was set, local guides took the squads on patrol, familiarizing them with the country they were to defend. There was a lot of it. Most, Kel discovered, was uphill. When the terrain got too bad for horses, they left their mounts to graze under guard and covered the ground on foot.
The patrol area a.s.signed by General Vanget included three villages, part of a river, two roads, silver mines, and a logging camp. One of the villages, Riversedge, was almost big enough to be called a town. Raoul decided that each squad would spend a week there, to add to the local defenders while enjoying soft duty that included baths, shops, and female companionship.
Kel wasn't sure that she would ever get to Riversedge, since Raoul didn't go. With the fort built, she rode along for one of every three patrols. She would have liked to go more often, but Flyndan insisted that as the owner of a spygla.s.s she take duty shifts atop a tall tree on a bluff, serving as lookout.
"I'll override him, if you like," Raoul had offered her quietly.
Kel shook her head and climbed with grim determination. Her walk down Balor's Needle had broken her fear of heights, but she would never like them. At least her time in the tree was limited by the watch schedule. Several hours after dawn she gladly handed her post and spygla.s.s to someone else.
Soon she discovered what most of Third Company knew: war was boring. They were ready for the Scanrans in April. The Scanrans were not ready for them. There were no reports of enemy activity until May - even then the action took place on the coast. Third Company planted small gardens inside the stockade and a large one outside. Lerant found an orphaned squirrel and raised it as May wore into June. Kel entered a chess tournament and found herself in pitched battle with Osbern for third place as Qasim and Raoul duelled for first. They practiced weapons and horseback riding. Men hunted with dogs and hawks, and fished, in squad strength. Kel celebrated her eighteenth birthday.
One foggy June day the squads commanded by Aiden arid Volorin found the enemy. By the time Raoul brought up five more squads in response to their horn calls, the Scanrans had fled. Five of Third Company were wounded. One was dead.
Kel was ashamed that she had longed for battle.
She'd forgotten that people might die when she chafed at the top of a tree.
Osbern's squad found a Scanran band robbing travelers five days later. This time the enemy left two men dead and three wounded. The wounded were sent to Northwatch to be questioned, nursed to health, and shipped to Sir Myles for more questioning.
Two days later Gildes of Veldine was the first rider in Osbern's squad as they followed a game trail on patrol. He didn't see the danger until his horse walked onto it, breaking through the leafy cover of a wolf pit. Down fell horse and rider onto sharpened stakes.
"Stupid!" growled Osbern, his sergeant, wiping away tears at the funeral pyre. "I told him, keep your eyes ahead - Scanrans love traps."
Raoul and Kel were on patrol with a squad when the sparrows, flying as scouts, came in shrieking. Behind them was a Scanran war party, fifteen men armed with swords or double-bladed axes. They plainly thought they outnumbered the Tortallans, but they reckoned without the horses. Peachblossom, trained as a warhorse, trampled a man who tried to pull Kel from the saddle. The man who followed him carried a sword: Kel parried his cut at Peachblossom and ran him through.
Raoul was pressed by two men, one on either side, who kept trying to pull him down as they dodged Drum's hooves. Kel clubbed one with the b.u.t.t of her glaive; she remembered Myles's plea for prisoners. Her hardest battle was to keep Peachblossom from killing her captive. By the time she got her mount under control, the fight was over, the Scanrans gone.
"Is that the kraken?" Kel asked, wiping sweat from her forehead. "It felt like bandits to me."
Raoul, dismounting to inspect the fallen, sighed. "Me too." He riffled through one man's clothes, grimacing as he shook lice off his hand. "These aren't much better than bandits."
"A diversion?" asked the squad's sergeant.