A/N: Up until the first separator is just the epilogue from the book. Much thanks to my beta, Lionesseyes13, and to Loten. I plan on writing a lengthy tale. This time, I will regularly update.
Taking one last look around her, Kel swung herself into Hoshi's saddle. After two months of work, the fortified town of New Hope still looked raw, but it was starting to resemble an actual town rather than a logging camp thrown together in a week.
The sight of cart after cart bringing their hard-earned harvest to the storage barns filled her with profound satisfaction. Not for the first time, she blessed Lord Raoul for waiting until the crops were in before he set his wedding date. She wouldn't have been able to enjoy herself at Steadfast if her people had still been in the fields. With the crops taken care of, she could feast with a carefree heart.
"Stop fussing," Fanche commented. She stood near Kel, hands on hips, her dark eyes amused as she looked up at the younger woman. "You'll be away for a week – if we can't manage for that long, what good are we?"
Kel grinned at New Hope's headwoman. "Actually, I was trying to remember if there was anything I hadn't done. Shutters left open –"
"Shutters closed," said Tobe, mounting a small, spritely, piebald mare who had taken a liking to him in Scanra. The greatest change the events of June had made in him was that he no longer trusted Kel out of his sight unless they were inside New Hope's walls. Kel understood and hoped he would relax as the winter's snows made it impossible for either of them to go very far.
"Shutters closed, bed made up, leave-behind weapons and armor cleaned," Tobe continued to rattle off. "Don't have to worry about feedin' your animals because they're comin' along with us. Duty rosters for the week in Master Terrec's hands." Terrec was the clerk who had taken Zamiel's position.
"She's fussing, isn't she?" Merric strolled out of headquarters, his hands tucked comfortably in his breeches pockets. "You women are forever fussing."
Things with their fighters had reached the point where occasionally Merric would let a sergeant command a patrol rather than do so himself. Today was Sergeant Jacut's day to patrol with his squad of intermingled former convicts and men of the town.
While there had been no official attention paid to Kel's Scanran journey, a week after her return, the silver marks on the convicts' foreheads had faded, a sign that someone somewhere had decided they were pardoned. As mistrustful as Tobe in their own way, they had elected to remain with the army in the north with Kel. Merric's staying in town while a convict squad patrolled showed all of New Hope that he trusted them not to return to their criminal habits.
"I'm not fussing," Kel retorted. "And where's Neal?"
Neal came racing up to them, windblown and hands only partially cleaned of blood. "I'm sorry! I don't tell babies when they're allowed to get born."
"Neal," Kel said as he reached for the horse Loesia held for him.
Neal looked at her, his green eyes feverish. He was in a hurry to get to Steadfast. His betrothed, Lady Yukimi, was there. Like Raoul's betrothed, Buriram, Commander of the Queen's Riders, Yuki had tired of waiting for her man to return south. As soon as the celebrations for Prince Roald's wedding to Princess Shinkokami had ended, Buri had resigned her post as commander, to be replaced by her assistant commander, Evin Larse. Together she and Yuki had bought passage on the first ship north, then traveled overland to Steadfast.
"Your hands," Kel pointed out as Neal simply blinked at her.
He looked, saw they were not entirely clean, and released a sound that was a cross between an anguished cry and a wail. Back into the infirmary he went.
"If he's like this now, how will he stay calm when his daughter tries for her knighthood?" A youthful voice asked.
Kel looked down at Irnai. The seer girl was one of several homeless children who had come to live in headquarters with Kel, Neal, Merric, and Tobe. She did her best to act like a normal child of her age, but when she foresaw things, she sounded as world-weary as Neal at his most sophisticated.
"Perhaps we won't share that knowledge with him just yet?" suggested Kel. "Let it be a surprise for him."
"He doesn't like surprises, and the road of his life is littered with them. I like that." Irnai grinned up at her.
Kel couldn't help it; she grinned at the child. "I do, too," she admitted. "It will be good for him."
Neal came back, hands dripping wet and clean. He flung himself into the saddle and raked his hair back from his eyes. "I'm ready," he declared. "Let's go."
Kel led the way with Neal on one side, and Jump on the other. People waved as Kel and Neal rode by but immediately returned to their work, putting on roofs and shutters, making the nails, preserves, and kindling New Hope would need to see them through the winter.
Passing through the gate, Kel waved at Sergeant Adner, who now commanded the village guard. He waved in reply. "Bring back some pretty, meek girls," he called. "Ours is too quarrelsome."
Agrane, whom he was courting when he was off duty, elbowed him.
"Enjoy your holiday, Lady Kel," Irnai called as they rode down the inclined road that served the village. "There will be work for the Protector of the Small soon enough."
Kel shook her head. No matter what she did, she couldn't stop people from calling her that.
She let her guard escort, Neal, and Jump ride ahead as they crossed the Greenwood's Bridge. She looked north. The dark, high ground of Haven, now their burial ground, lay two miles upriver, too far from New Hope for an enemy to use it as an attack base.
She had also asked Numair if he could raise the ground they would need forty feet rather than twenty, to put off all but the most determined attackers. This time Numair had kept his health and shared the work with Harailt of Aili and a few other mages who had responded to his call for assistance. Lord Raoul had confided that Kel should ask for all the extra help she needed. Giving her all she asked, within reason, was a kind of silent apology from the Crown for putting her people in harm's way.
Kel turned Hoshi to look up at New Hope's walls. She thought the battle flags and shields taken from those Scanrans who had attacked her people that summer gave the walls a nice, homey touch. They also served as a warning to any raiding parties that New Hope had teeth.
"Kel!" shouted Neal. "Are you going to dream all day? She's waiting for me!"
Lovers, Kel thought, rolling her eyes. At least there was one headache she didn't have. She was about to tell her friend he could wait when she remembered that she'd get to see Dom while at Steadfast. It would be nice to be able to sit and chat for a while without kidnapping, flight, and war to distract them.
She nudged Hoshi to a trot.
When they finally arrived, Steadfast was as breathtakingly organized as all the other times Kel and her friends had been there. They were greeted by the current captain of the watch, a blue-eyed sergeant Kel had missed dearly – Domitan of Masbolle. He waved down to them with a broad smile on his face, one that melted Kel's heart.
As a page and squire, and even at the very beginning of her knighthood, Kel had thought herself fickle. During that time, her affections had passed from Neal to Cleon, but whenever she'd been around Dom, her attraction to the others had faded. When she'd first gotten over her crush on Neal, she'd felt guilty. When Cleon met her on the way to Scanra and the war, she had likewise felt ashamed that she had lost interest in him so quickly.
In the time since then, she had experienced a revelation: when close to Dom, she had to forcefully remind herself of the current object of her affections and squash her feelings for Dom, while her feelings for Neal and Cleon had passed all on their own. That said, she had never needed to remind herself of her – dare she think it? – love for Dom. Or, more precisely speaking, the reasons behind that love.
More and more in the months since her Scanran adventure, she found herself thinking of all the ways he had ever been there for her, the way he was so supportive of her – even before he'd properly met her, he'd been on her side. And, though he'd been on orders, he'd crossed into enemy territory in the heat of war, chasing after her. She truly was grateful to him for that. Like his Meatheaded cousin, Dom had been her ally from the beginning.
She quickly waved back at him with her own heartwarming smile. This was going to be a wonderful holiday, indeed, and Kel was filled with eagerness for the upcoming days with Dom.
As Tobe led their horses to the stables, Squire Owen appeared to show Neal and Kel to their usual rooms while Rengar led their guard escort to the soldiers' stables and barracks.
The whole way to their rooms, Owen was his usual bubbly self. "Kel, you missed it! Eighty-odd raiders surrounded the fort yesterday, and my lord completely thrashed them. Sent them running from the hills. Well, the ones who survived, anyways. Seems our northern friends have lost their war stomachs now they don't have their accursed machines to hide behind!" He had barely paused to draw breath before Neal broke in.
"I thought we were only mentioning the new powerful mage when absolutely necessary?" Sir Nealan asked in what was a polite tone for him, but quite rude for others.
Owen allowed himself one rude gesture directed at the Meathead before turning to Kel, saying, "My Lord Wyldon is expecting you both for dinner tonight. Any reports you might have, unless absolutely urgent, may wait until tomorrow after breakfast. Good to see you, Kel." With that, Owen left them.
Kel relaxed in her bath, welcoming the extended break her completely unscheduled afternoon left her. Had she still been at New Hope, she would have been on a work detail, sorting through reports, or, worst of all, settling disputes.
The arguments among the original Haven refugees were dying out. However, with over two hundred more refugees than she'd previously had to deal with, her workload had more than doubled, because the newcomers caused as many problems with the older resident groups as they did amongst themselves. She couldn't complain too much, though. She knew that, just as the old refugees had, each set of newcomers would acclimate themselves to the New Hope way of life.
The almost-calm that descended once everyone had fallen into the work schedules, grown accustomed to the intense physical weapons' training, and gained that happier outlook that hard-worked-for achievement garners was invaluable to Kel.
During her page and squire years, Kel had fantasized about leading companies of men into battle, but she had never really believed she would get the opportunity to actually lead anyone besides herself. She was startled to discover that she enjoyed life in New Hope – even with the losses she faced from time to time – even more than she had enjoyed palace life.
A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts. "Lady Kel, are you in there?" Tobe's young voice called.
"Yes, I'm taking a bath, though. Give me a minute to get decent." Kel dressed quickly in shirt and breeches, and was about to open the door when she had a change of mind and donned one of the dresses Lalasa had had waiting for her.
Lalasa had decided to come with Buri and Yuki to oversee the garments branch of the wedding preparations, which also gave her the opportunity to request Kel's measurements during the Lady Knight's last trip to the fort to personally deliver reports to Lord Wyldon.
Lalasa had said then, "Wear these dresses to impress, milady." She'd smirked at Kel's indignant look and gone back to sticking her with pins.
Kel smiled to herself now as she slipped into the forest green gown, thanking the gods her path had crossed with Lalasa's so many years ago.
"Kel!" Tobe called impatiently.
Kel sighed as she hurried to finish the last few lacings. "Just give me a moment, Tobe."
It was worth the look she got from him. "Kel, you look like a lady!" He was too stunned to say anything more.
Kel smiled as she remembered Owen's oh-so-similar reaction when he'd first seen Kel in a dress, although Tobe's was admittedly more flattering. For some reason being called a lady instead of a girl was immensely pleasing to her.
"Something was urgent, Tobe?" she gently reminded him.
He shook off his surprise and responded in a rush, "Milord Wyldon and his other guests await you for dinner."
Tobe didn't bother to enter the dining room with her. Owen and Rengar would serve all the officers and other important people, including Neal, Dom, Numair, Daine, Wyldon, Buri, Yuki, and Raoul.
When she walked in, most everybody was standing. Lord Wyldon spotted her first.
"Lady Knight." He bowed his head as he pulled out a chair for her.
Kel started to blush as everyone – even the officers with whom she was unacquainted – stared at her in wonder. It took a few coughs from Numair and Daine before the others remembered themselves and took their own seats.
They traded war stories and thanked the gods New Giantkiller had been finished, plugging one of the bigger holes in their line of defense against King Maggur's raiders. While Kel and her friends had destroyed his advantage by eliminating the killing machines from the equation, the war was far from over and the Tortallans still needed all the help they could get.
Raoul was particularly excited about the new fort. "At first, I was quite upset they named it after me, but it's kind of grown on me, and keeping the name sort of honors the fallen soldiers who were crooked enough to name it."
There were a few brighter parts to the meal. Talk of the upcoming wedding and the festivities planned around it lightened everyone's morale. Even in the middle of war, life must go on – maybe even especially during a war – and weddings often brought people together who were normally at odds.
Dom seemed to appreciate this fact the most. Leaning across Kel's left shoulder to talk to Neal with a mischievous smirk on his face, he goaded, "Speaking of weddings, when are you and Yuki going to tie the knot?"
Neal spluttered angrily for a few moments before finding his words again, leaning across Kel to get in Dom's face. "That is our business and has absolutely nothing to do with you, Fruithead!"
Kel couldn't help laughing with the rest, including Yuki who had her shukusen over the lower half of her face, at Dom's apparent family nickname. "Fruithead and Meathead – what a pair!"
Both cousins turned to her with their best glares and then paid sole attention to their food. There goes Dom staring at me every chance he thought he could sneak in, thought Kel to herself.
Once they got to dessert, both Kel and Yuki stopped Neal, saying, "You didn't eat your vegetables!"
Neal scowled and stared longingly at their filled plates.
Dom laughed before saying, "Dear Protector of the Small, I hope you are as skilled with your sword as you are with your sharp words."
"Keep calling me that and I'll show you just how skilled I am."
Daine spoke up now. "You know, Kel, you're not the first person to dislike their title. Alanna still gets mad when certain people call her the Lioness."
Apparently, Numair felt compelled to add his own gold noble to the matter. "Oh, yes, she is forever yelling at me for reciting the most recent ballads to her. I thought women liked being sung to." He finished with a dramatic sigh.
There was a curious glint in Buri's eye as she spoke. "Most women do like being sung to, Numair – when it's actually a love song or something that will make them feel all warm and gooey on the inside. Singing to them about their military exploits isn't quite the same thing." Even Wyldon chuckled at that.
Kel stood to leave shortly after, but as she reached the door Dom called out to her. "Kel, we didn't agree on a time."
She turned around with an incredulous look on her face. "A time for what?"
"A time for you to show me how deftly you handle your blade." He spoke as if it should have been obvious.
"Oh, well, I have to report to Lord Wyldon after breakfast, but I suppose we could meet after that."
"I'll be waiting, dear Protector." Kel scowled and slammed the door behind her to much laughter on the other side.
Kel managed to return to her rooms later than she regularly did, but earlier than she expected she would have. For tomorrow at least, she had to rise at her usual time if she wanted to get any amount of training in – she was to spar with Dom for the short period before lunch, which didn't really count, and Buri and Yuki had enlisted her to aid with the wedding plans after the noon meal. Apparently, they hadn't learned their lesson from Kel's limited help with the royal wedding arrangements that took place during her squire years.
Her thoughts shifted just as she was falling asleep. She couldn't help the fire that had spread through her heart and veins whenever Dom had spoken to her. She looked forward to sparring with him in the late morning. She fell into deep slumber with a faint smile on her lips and hope in heart once more.
A/N: Chapter 1's title: "New Hope" was chosen because various characters are experiencing changes and are looking to the future. Raoul and Buri are getting married, Dom and Kel both want a relationship, Neal and Yuki will be getting married soon as well...you get the picture.