General Disclaimer: Probably all the characters of any importance in this fic are property of Tamora Pierce (a truly excellent author). The plot is mine. I keep very good track of what I've read and where, but in the unlikely event that you feel I've copied your work, please let me know, so I can either remove the offending material or offer explanations.

My first fic, but no going easy. Flame at will!

* * * * *

Delicate blue wings fluttered as the butterfly who owned them dodged a clamping fist. A small giggle escaped the attacker as easily as the butterfly had. The child who chased it couldn't have been more than three. His step was still a bit wobbly, but his bright blue eyes were curious and bright; always seeking out another interesting thing. Searching for something new to see or touch.

His mother, Veralidaine Sarrasri, laughed at his attempts and said, "Come now. Leave the poor thing alone."

"Harassing Tortal's wildlife again?" asked a voice over her shoulder.

"Naturally," she answered wryly as her husband stooped down and rescued the butterfly from the torments of her son by scooping him up. Watching, as her husband gently bounced the toddler and dipped him low then high, Daine smiled. How she loved Numair Samalin and the family they were building together – the new adventure.

"Papa! Wheeeee! 'gain! 'gain!"

Laughing, Numair obeyed. He was rewarded with the gurgling laughter of his son. Gods, but life is wonderful, he thought. Laying an arm companionably over Daine's shoulder, he thought again, very wonderful.

* * * * *

Keladry of Mindelan gave a small sigh of envy. They looked so happy and at peace as a family, much like living in the security of an oasis while the desert storm rakes the soil dry. Moments before, Kel had seen Numair's tall frame rigid with stress and his shoulders tense with the fatigue and worry from news of the coming war. Now, mere minutes later, she was watching the same frame shaking with genuine laughter. It was amazing. It was beautiful. And damned if she wasn't jealous!

Turning away, Kel walked back to New Hope. She rolled her shoulders in a fruitless attempt to release some of the tension. She knew by now that the only thing that would release it was one of Neal's spells, but wasn't it a waste of magic if the tension would return with the next day's sun? Besides, Kel reminded herself grimly, Neal would only badger her again about time off.

Goddess knew she needed it, but who had time? Not Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, of that Kel was sure. Not with New Hope expanding so quickly. She was already needed everywhere at once: to train new recruits, go over new rations, make new rules and revise old ones, deal with petty squabbles, and to organise city defence improvements. New was once again becoming a refugee fort. Kel's day was hectic at best, and the war had yet to begin.

She had been gone – what – 8 months? That was before Tortal's only distaff knight had been recomissioned by Commander Wyldon to transform the bustling city back into a defendable fort again. And much as she loved being back; she knew it was taking a toll on her.

She was tense, couldn't sleep, barely ate, and was continually ill with one thing or another. Neal had told her it was stress from the war that was responsible. Too bad, she thought wryly, that it seemed Tortal was continually at war.

Kel coughed quietly into her hand. This was a habit she'd made since Neal had first tried to get "the Stump" to order her off duty. She had not appreciated the effort. But she couldn't really blame him; she knew she was worrying her friends. Yukimi never failed to offer a diversion of some sort and Neal was constantly checking up on her. Merric almost chronically "forgot" to wake her for scouting duty on the rare occasions she did sleep. Owen was always the emissary sent by Wyldon, and though he catered to her; she suspected that Wyldon knew the exact number of times she'd coughed. Even Fanche had stopped dolling out any of her usual token spite, and that was scary.

She saluted Saefas on the way through the entrance gates and headed for the stables. Peachblossom and Hoshi whickered and thrust their heads over theirs stall doors as she came in. Out of habit more than anything else, she grabbed a brush. Kel knew they'd already been groomed. Toby insisted on rising early each morning so he could beat her to her chores. Toby would groom the horses before breakfast, while she was expressly forbidden by Neal and his father to leave the main building until after she'd eaten – or rather, had pretended to eat, since her appetite had deserted her.

None of the tension left as she brushed Peachblossom, but some of the worry was brushed into a far corner as her thoughts shifted. Peachblossom was being unusually sedate, Kel thought, frowning. Perhaps he was sick. She'd have to ask Daine to take a look later.

A sparrow chirped nearby. She turned to look at it, and was surprised to see Neal standing behind her with the sparrow perched on his shoulder. He raised a brow.

"Letting people sneak up on you , Mindelan?"

"Hush, Neal"

His shrewd green eyes ran over her consideringly. "No. You have been working too hard. You need more sleep, more rest, more food, etc. If no one's going to do anything about it, I am."

"We've been over this, Neal." Unconciously she ran a hand through her cropped hair.

"Ah, but this time I've got orders straight from the Stump."

"You should really stop calling Wyldon that."

Neal shrugged. She was trying to distract him, and he wasn't about to let her. "It's just a nickname, not that unlike the one my dear cousin spreads like dandelion fluff. But..." he protesting before she could expand on that thought, "that's not what I'm here to argue about."

Damn. He noticed, Kel thought.

"In fact, I don't have to argue with you at all. You are going off duty for the next few days. You are going to rest, eat, and relax at Fort Mastiff, as per both Wyldon and my orders."

"Neal! Since when do YOU give Me orders?" Kel asked. She was well past caring about her Yamani training, and made no effort to restrain the anger or violence in her voice or body. Her hands fisted at her sides as if she longed to take a swing at him.

"Since it became apparent that you can't take care of yourself," he returned seriously; though his tone smacked of insult.

"I won't leave, Neal...."

Neal ignored her sputtering denials. Sometimes you had to attack to do what's best. "Your escort will await you after tomorrow's breakfast."

"And if I refuse?"

"Understand that if you do not report to your escort, who by the way are under my command, you will be removed by force."

"Neal! I won't have my men see me that way!"

"Good. Then you'll be there." He paused for a moment, Kel was glaring at him with untempered anger; her defiance shimmering around her in hot waves. Neal was almost tempted to let her stay – almost. "Mithros, Kel! Just do as you're told for once!" he said exasperated.

"If people would give me better orders, I'd be more likely to follow them." Kel mumbled darkly at his receeding back.

Peachblossom snorted.

"Oh hush, you."

"Kel." Neal called as he reached the doorway. "See you at 9."

A horsebrush was given flying lessons.

* * * * *

"What right have they to turn against me like this?" Kel hissed 5 minutes later. Still royally pissed despite the time she'd taken to force herself into the image of calm, she stalked out of the stables intending to walk off her mad.

Kel circled New Hope's walls, passing guards without so much as a word or backward glance before she went deeper into the village. The walking had taken some of the edge off her anger, but she made no further efforts to find her Yamani calm. She wanted her mood clear to everybody. It said: stay clear unless you want to be bitten. She really didn't want to talk to anybody; really wasn't up to it.

But in her present state she wasn't getting anything done. That'd put her even further behind her schedule than she would be with the extended leave being forced upon her. Undecided as to whether to feel guilty or to feel yet another burst of temper, she directed herself towards the duty board. The list of duties was posted nearby; she no longer seemed to remember what she'd been signed up for that morning. It seemed that she'd been forgetting a lot of things recently. Gods knew she had more than her share of things to remember!

The refugees stayed clear of her. Whether that was due to her current expression or a warning from Neal; she wasn't sure, but she did notice. And, she suddenly felt very concious of the glare she was giving people.

Calm, Kel, calm. She chanted it inwardly as she closed her eyes. Picture the cool blue waters of a serene lake. The Yamani mask wasn't very good, but it would do. Now at least she looked calm, if a bit annoyed, on the outside. But inside the Lady Knight was far from Yamani calm.

Especially after she read the list of duties.