The next two weeks went by quickly. Kel fell quite easily into the familiar routine of training. She found that the men she had command of treated her in one of two ways in the training yards. Either they acted like she was made of glass, liable to break at any moment, or they did their very best to break her. She did her best to prove both sentiments wrong.
After the afternoon they spent scouring chainmail, she noticed that their gear all looked to be in much better shape, even the things she hadn't watched them clean. She was glad that in that, at least, they'd stopped testing her. Of course, they found other ways. Orders were obeyed more slowly than they should be, or misinterpreted. She came to know what her sergeants thought of her, as well as most of her men.
Gunnar Smithesson had no trust for female warriors. Twice they went on training rides with squads of Riders, and both days he spent lamenting how the 'fool women taking up arms' would be the death of them all, when he thought Kel couldn't hear him. He questioned her orders constantly. At first, she explained her reasoning behind her orders carefully, hoping that he would see that she knew what she was about. After three days, she stopped bothering anything more than a most basic clarification.
Whilam of Mathis didn't seem to have any of the inherent dislike for her that Gunnar Smithesson had. He gave his opinion freely when it was appropriate and worked well with the Riders. He didn't look down on Kel for being young or green, and he didn't question her for no reason or try and batter her into the ground during training exercises. To Kel, he seemed almost too good to be true. He was even a good natured man, joking with the men of his squad and keeping spirits up even during the most dismal weather.
Mavirim of Rhye, the tall redhead with the braided hair, was blunt to the point of rudeness. The first conversation she had with him in private, the morning after spending a few hours in conversation with Dom and Raoul, was an interesting one. He hadn't wasted any time on niceties. "I don't care one way or another what equipment you've got between your legs. You're a green knight. I'm young enough to remember exactly what kind of mistakes green soldiers make, and I don't like the idea that I'm going to have to be even more alert than normal, to watch for the mistakes you're inevitably going to make."
She'd waited for a few seconds to see if he was going to continue before she replied, a bit shocked he was so direct. She was glad she wasn't sitting behind her desk, instead leaning against the edge of it, as her sergeant hadn't decided to take the seat that was available; he made her feel almost short, and she resisted the urge to stand up straight to claim every inch of her own not inconsiderable height. "I have more field experience than any knight my age, and I've spent a year in command of a large refugee camp. I don't think I'm in too much danger of stabbing myself in the foot with my own sword when I trip over it."
The man snorted. "You're Raoul Giantkiller's pet squire. That's why you've got this command. He's a fool who is allowing his sentimentality to cloud his judgment."
Now she did stand up straight, taking a step forward in anger. "I don't particularly care if you don't yet have faith in my abilities, but if you ever say another word against my lord, I will beat you from one side of the training yard to the other. Lord Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak is one of the best commanders living and the only reason he would ever give anyone a command is because he had complete faith that he or she was completely capable of fulfilling his orders. Malign me all you like, but call him a fool again and I will make you regret your words." It was a surprise to realize that what she said was true; Raoul wouldn't have given her this command without having complete faith in her ability to follow his orders, and follow them well.
She was shocked when Mavirim threw back his head and laughed. "Maybe you won't get us all killed after all, Lady Knight."
Somehow, that conversation had smoothed things a bit with the prickly man. He wasn't polite by any means, and he certainly still watched for any mistakes she might be making, but he seemed willing to at least wait to pass judgment.
Breem Tanner wasn't doing her that courtesy. She frequently saw him having a quiet word with Gunnar Smithesson, both men with their mouths twisted into frowns when they looked at her. He didn't question her orders as much as the other man, but he looked like he wanted to.
She also got to know the men of her squads. She learned that Branal Grode, out of Mavirim's squad, was an excellent chess player. When she added Tobe to their training work, halfway through that first week, she learned that one of Whilam's men, Greesh Connarsra, had a son about Tobe's age and had quite the soft spot for her young charge. She learned that Franth Marrsin, one of Gunnar's men, loved to play tricks. When she found her soap had been doctored with itch weed, and herself covered in an itchy, stinging rash as a result, she put him on evening watch for a week, knowing the man loved to spend his evenings laughing with the other men in the common room. Secretly, she'd been almost pleased, once she'd seen the camp healers anyway. Franth didn't bother pranking you if he didn't like you, and it made most of Gunnar's squad accept her as a real part of their unit.
She did see their training together helping them to become a cohesive unit. The second time they rode out together, four days after that first ride, they traveled better as a group. The scouts were harder to catch out, and the men seemed more willing to support each other. It made her hopeful.
Things with Dom fell into a comfortable pattern. When she could, she snuck off to his room after Tobe fell asleep, though she was frequently too exhausted to manage it. Most evenings he would find her after she'd retreated to her office to have a bowl of tea with her. Twice he brought Wolset. Once he even brought Lerant, Raoul's prickly standard bearer. She and Lerant had settled into an eventual truce during her squirehood, and respected each other. Still, she couldn't quite call him a friend, and Dom later admitted that he didn't particularly like the man either, but had gotten sick of being accused of monopolizing the Lady Knight's time by the standard bearer, and had seen it as the easiest way to get the man to be quiet about it.
Kel did wonder if Dom's men had figured them out. Apparently, one night that she'd managed to slip into Dom's room she hadn't kept quite quiet enough, and Dom had been teased fairly mercilessly the next morning by Aiden, whose rooms shared a wall with Dom's. Seeing her lover blushing through breakfast had made Kel laugh along with the rest of Third Company's sergeants, but by lunchtime, the teasing had stopped. Dom was also looking particularly smug, which made her irritated and pleased all at once. She wasn't sure if she liked the sensation, and simply decided not to ask; if he didn't confirm her thoughts, she wouldn't have to examine her feelings too closely.
Two days later, when she sat down with Dom and Wolset, both men bore the marks of fighting, though she knew their squad hadn't left the fort, much less seen any action in the currently Scanran-free borderlands. Both brushed off her questions and when asked directly simply ignored her. Later that night, she snuck into Dom's rooms, her bruise balm tucked in her belt pouch. She'd finally emptied the jar Alanna had given her as a Midwinter gift her first year as a page, but when she'd mentioned it to the other Lady Knight when passing through Mastiff, the woman had sent a new jar with the next courier. Kel had appreciated it too much to protest.
After objecting for a few minutes, Dom finally allowed her to put some of the cream on his bruised eye and knuckles. When the swelling subsided a bit, he flexed his hands experimentally before thanking her with a kiss. "Dom," she demanded, "What on earth happened?"
He shrugged one shoulder and winked with his good eye. "Just lads being lads, Kel. I'm sure you're used to the insanity my squad gets up to by now."
She wasn't going to let this go so easily. If it had just been a prank gone wrong, or even a fight to settle some difference, he would have told her. She was certainly no stranger to the things soldiers got up to while waiting for fighting to start for the season. "I don't like being lied to, Dom. If that's all you have to say to me, I'm going."
She rose to leave, but he grabbed her wrist and pulled her back down to where she'd been perching on his bed. "Someone said something to me that Wolset and I found objectionable. It's not important, alright?"
"Someone said something about me? Of course it's important, Dom! Who was it? What did he say?"
He half grinned at her as he lay back against his pillows, his eyes glinting in the candlelight. "It doesn't matter, because he won't be saying it again."
She frowned. "If someone said something about me, I deserve to know what it was. And I won't have you hauling off and punching someone for calling me a trollop or something equally stupid. I learn to ignore the idiots, and so should you. Just because you're my, well, whatever you are, it doesn't give you leave to be acting as much the fool as the men maligning me."
Dom sighed. "One of the army men, not one of yours, mind, asked Wolset if his company could borrow you from Third, since we seem to be sharing you with regulars now. Wolset likes you, Kel, all of Third Company does, and none of us have ever put up with people calling your virtue into question."
She laughed; she couldn't help it. "And yet now my virtue is certainly very questionable!" Clamping both hands over her mouth, she dissolved into a complete fit of giggles, until tears streamed down her cheeks and her sides ached from trying to suppress her laughter.
Dom didn't look so amused. "The accuracy of the remarks made by the scum sucking bottom feeder was not really the issue here, Kel. Besides, being with one man doesn't make you a trollop."
Kel wiped tears from the corners of her eyes, fighting off the last remnants of her laughter. "Dom, it wouldn't matter if I went to my death a virgin; as far as the conservatives care, me taking up arms proves my slatternly ways for the world to see. I've long since stopped caring about those kinds of insults; they're easy, they take no skill and certainly no knowledge of me. Besides, why is being called a trollop even an insult? Men who behave similarly are usually applauded for their ability to win women's affection. I've always thought it was a strange double standard."
Dom sighed and pulled her down for a cuddle. She felt his lips brush her hair. "We men are jealous creatures. We assume that the thought of you being with anyone else makes you as crazy as it makes us."
She laughed, softly. "For all the time I spend around men, I'm really no closer to understanding you at all."
He pulled her even closer for a kiss. "Don't worry, Kel, we find you women just as mysterious." They quickly got lost in exploring each others' mysteries.
When Kel finally slipped out of Dom's room in the very small hours of the morning, she got a bit of a surprise. She bumped straight into Whilam of Mathis, slipping out of the room belonging to one of Raoul's many clerks, housed in the same part of the headquarters building as her rooms. She blinked at him for a moment, then continued on to her room. She shook her head slightly, feeling a bit foolish for being so mortified. She'd not been caught as red handed as her sergeant. At least she wouldn't have to worry about Whilam flirting with her; the clerk whose room he was leaving was decidedly male.
The next morning, after a particularly exhausting session working her squads with swords and bows, Whilam cornered her in the stables, where she was giving Peachblossom and Hoshi some attention. The man reached out to absently pat Peachblossom, and Kel managed to pull her horse back before he could bite. "Pet Jump, or Hoshi, if you're so inclined. Peachblossom doesn't have much tolerance for, well, anyone, really. Did you want something?" Everyone else had gone to get washed before lunch.
"I just wanted to explain, about last night…"
She held up a hand, slightly amused by the slight blush evident on her sergeant's cheeks, even in the dim light of the stables. "No explanation necessary, sergeant. What you do in your free time is your own business, so long as it doesn't interfere with your duties."
"I just wanted to explain, that it wasn't what you thought."
She sighed. "For that, you'd have to know what I thought, which honestly wasn't much. I don't know how much you know about me, but I grew up in the Yamani Islands. People desire who they desire. It's private, but it's nothing to be ashamed of. I know things can be thought of differently here, but that's my opinion on the matter."
The older man looked relieved and stooped to pat her dog, who rolled on his back to enjoy the attention. "You won't say anything, will you?"
She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes, barely. "You weren't the only one quietly sneaking back a bell after midnight. If you don't go talking out of turn, I won't." The look of relief evident in his eyes when he looked back up at her made Kel quite sad. "Whilam, honestly, I have no intention of saying anything to anyone, I swear it."
He stood, brushing bits of straw from his knees, before extending his arm to clasp hers. "Call me Whil, please."
After that, she found it quite easy to be friends with Whil. He'd already treated her with respect as his commander, but the secret she'd promised to keep had cemented his trust for her as an individual, and that made a difference.
By the end of two weeks, the days of training had started to blur together. They worked with swords, bows and pole arms. They worked at maneuvering in the woods and mountains around Steadfast, learning the lesser known trails that led towards the border. They tracked and hunted and drilled in formation. She learned the strengths and weaknesses of the different squads, and got better at making them work as a larger whole.
When Raoul called her to his office, wanting to send her and her men out on extended maneuvers, she had some faith that she might actually be able to follow out his orders.