Chapter 1

June, 463 H.E.

Domitan of Masbolle looked all around as he entered the gates of the two year old fortified town of New Hope. Ahead of him, the Knight Commander of the Kings Own, Lord Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak, had already dismounted and was handing the reins of his horse to a tall and weedy teenage boy, who Dom immediately recognised as Tobeis Boon. He dismounted and handed his reins to the waiting boy, grinning.

"Tobe! Is Mother putting fertiliser in your porridge?" Dom enquired, putting his hand on the boy's head. He had put on at least three inches since the last time they'd met about six months before.

Tobe grinned. "No, sir. But my lady always says I'm growing like a weed."

Raoul snorted behind them. "I remember saying the same thing about her, each time we saw the armourer in Corus while she was a squire," he remarked with amusement on his face. "Speaking of my favourite former squire," Raoul continued, "I'm surprised she's not here to greet us."

Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, the realm's first known Lady Knight in over a century, was ordered to build and run the fortified town of New Hope after the refugee camp she was in charge of was overrun and her refugees kidnapped while she was reporting at Fort Mastiff. Defying orders to clean up and return to the Fort, Keladry gave her soldiers the slip and went to Scanra to rescue her people. Some of her knight year-mates, her servant boy Tobe, and convict soldiers followed her without orders, while Raoul sent Dom and his squad on an unofficial mission to assist her. Together under her command, they managed to rescue the refugees and defeat King Maggur's pet necromancer, who was intending to use the souls of the camp's children to fuel his monstrous killing devices.

After the mage, Blayce the Gallan or the Nothing Man as Kel called him, was killed, all the killing devices in the field stopped moving and Maggur lost his deadliest weapon and advantage. From then, the tide of the war turned in favour of the Tortallans, culminating with a stalemate at Frasrlund in the northwest, both sides occupying a side of the river. Malcontent in Scanra soon manifested in the separation of King Maggur's head from his shoulders as factions in his alliance of clans began jostling for power, and eventually Scanran diplomats headed to Corus for peace treaty negotiations. Last word was that a treaty was imminent, though troops remained stationed on the border, and probably would for some months.

"We weren't expecting you until this evening, my lord. My lady is out on patrol. She will be back for lunch." The boy looked at the horses, who were gently nudging him and sniffing his pockets. He bowed. "If you'll excuse me, I will take your horses now."

Dom grinned at him. "Thank you, Tobe." He gestured to the company of the Own behind him in the gate. "The men will see to their own horses and gear. I understand Sir Merric has organised space for them in the barracks."

Tobe nodded, looking grave. "Very well, Sergeant Dom."

"He is a sergeant no longer," Raoul said quietly, chuckling. Tobe glanced between the men with a confused expression. Dom grinned and bowed to the boy, saying as he straightened, "Domitan of Masbolle, Captain of First Company of the Kings Own, at your service."

Tobe's face split in a grin. "Wait until Lady Kel hears!" he yelped.

Dom shushed him. "Don't tell everyone yet! I want to see the look on Mea—Sir Nealan's face when he finds out."

Tobe grinned and led the horses away. Raoul waved to the soldiers behind them, and they too followed the boy towards the stables. Raoul clapped Dom on the shoulder wandered off. Dom watched for a moment, and was about to head toward the headquarters building when a familiar voice drawled in his ear.

"What look on my face when I find out what?"

Dom turned and clasped arms with his grinning cousin. "Meathead!"

Nealan of Queenscove sniffed and looked down his nose haughtily. "That's Sir Meathead to you! What are you doing here anyway? I thought you and your troupe of incorrigible pranksters were to remain at Steadfast."

"What am I doing here? Is that any way to greet your favourite cousin?" he exclaimed, feigning hurt and then grinning. "And Third Company is at Steadfast."

Neal raised his eyebrows. "And?"

Dom smirked. "I, dearest Sir Meathead, am moving up in the world."

Neal scowled and squinted at the captain's badge on Dom's tunic. When their eyes met again, Dom's smirk and Neal's scowl both deepened. Then Neal grinned and ran his hand through his hair. "Mithros! Captain of First Company? So you're coming with us to Corus, then? Does this mean I have to ask Yuki to find space for you on the wedding list?"

Neal would be going south with them to Corus, to marry his 'Yamani blossom,' Lady Yukimi noh Daiomoru. With the war wrapping up and Prince Roald and Princess Shinkokami expecting their first child soon, a small delegation from the Yamani Islands including representatives from Yuki's family were headed to Corus for the birth and wedding. Kel would also be accompanying them south at the request of Princess Shinkokami, as one of her childhood friends from the Yamani Islands.

"Only if it's no problem. I would hate to get on Yuki's bad side so close to us becoming family."

"And I would hate to heal your head when she cracks it open with her fan. We could start a family feud –it would keep things interesting for the next decade at least."

"Meathead." Dom rolled his eyes at his cousin and stretched, grinning. "I don't know about you, but I'm going to see if there's anything to eat around here."

With that they headed toward the mess hall beside New Hope's headquarters. The cooks had just begun serving lunch, so they picked up trays and filled them with bowls of steaming soup filled with barley and herbs, bread rolls, cold meat and cheese. Raoul had wasted no time in finding the mess hall, and was already seated and in conversation with a red-headed knight that Dom recognised as one of Kel and Neal's year-mates, Merric of Hollyrose. They were familiar with each other after their Scanran jaunt. Merric looked up and saw them walking over.

"I hear congratulations are in order, Captain!"

Dom grinned at the wiry red-head and they clasped hands across the table. As they sat down, Neal muttered, "I always thought you lot were mad in the Own, but now I know it. My lord, how could you inflict this larrikin upon the court?"

Raoul grinned wolfishly. "We are mad. But at least this one has an iota of social grace and doesn't resemble a block of wood or mistake tapestries for hiding places as I am wont to do. Mithros only knows why, but he seems to enjoy himself at court parties."

"Not so much that I agreed to do this if that was all First Company would be doing," Dom added over a mouthful of bread. Merric and Neal looked at him, but it was Raoul who elaborated.

"First Company has traditionally been a show company, and up until now I hadn't appointed a new captain after the late Glaisdan of Haryse. Glaisdan was good at what he did as a court show pony but he wasn't suited for a field command, and it got him and nineteen other men killed in one fell swoop. First Company has stayed at the border under my direct command, but their numbers are down significantly. So now I have an opportunity to appoint a capable young captain and recruit to make it a better fighting unit. We can't afford to have something like that happen again."

Dom swallowed his mouthful and added, "Second Company has been in Corus for the whole war, taking on court and ceremonial duties that normally would have been performed by First. If we can bring First up to the same field capabilities as Second and Third, we can rotate all companies between field and court duties."

The subject changed as members of the Own started to trickle into the mess. Merric told them about a spidren nest that that he and two squads of army regulars cleaned up after the winter ice had melted. Neal complained about healing acid burns from spidren blood on those of the men who got too close to the monsters. They were trying to prevent unfriendly immortals from becoming established in the area, and it was unending work.

Dom was beginning to wonder if Kel was going to turn up at all, and despite himself, began to look up and scan the room frequently. He had been alarmed to realise he had fallen for the tall lady knight, as he seemed to be in the middle of it before he even noticed he'd begun. His cousin Neal was her best friend and had been her page sponsor at the Palace. Neal's letters had been filled with tales of their adventures and exploits to the extent that when he finally met her after Raoul took her on as a squire, Dom felt like he'd known her for years. He had promised Neal to look out for her, and did his best to make her feel welcome in the Own as if she were a younger sister. He could not pin-point the exact time when his feelings changed from brotherly affection to romantic admiration other than that it must have been a process beginning towards the end of her squirehood until he realised how much he cared when she ran off to Scanra to rescue her refugees.

Dom had heard through the King's Own gossip grapevine that Kel was unattached after her quiet romance with the young Kennan knight ended when he left to marry the woman his mother had chosen for him, but the lady kept her emotions behind the firm Yamani mask she picked up from her time in the Islands, and no one was quite brave enough to ask her about it. Besides, he figured, it was a hopeless crush and she was probably out of his league anyway—as a member of the Own he would be unable to marry without resigning, and for all he knew, she could still be nursing a broken heart from the Kennan lad. Not even Neal seemed to know what was going on when someone asked him at Lord Raoul's wedding a few months after Scanra. Ironic, Dom thought, considering how Neal wore his feelings on his sleeve for all to know, while his best friend was at pains to hide all of hers.

A few of New Hope's soldiers walked into the mess, joking with one another and clearly just in from patrol. Merric nodded to them as they joined the queue to be served that had formed out of field workers and the Own. Kel wasn't among them. He glanced to his side and noticed Neal watching him with an odd expression on his face. Caught, Neal smiled, but uncharacteristically said nothing and turned back to his food. That would be something to ponder later, though.

Dom sighed and ran his hand through his hair. Standing, he picked up his tray and caught the eye of one of his sergeants, Marten of Rosemark.

"Sergeant Marten. Your squad will help with wash-up after lunch."

The man nodded and signalled the instructions to his men. Dom turned and nodded to Raoul, then walked toward the serving window to return his tray.

"Dom!"

His heart beat a little faster and he turned to face the voice that called his name as he laid his tray on the bench.

"Kel!"

He smiled and leaned in to hug her. They embraced and Kel stepped back. She was tanned from the fields, the freckles across her nose a little darker than he remembered. Her sun-lightened brown hair had grown longer and she wore it pulled back from her face and tied with a leather strip. It was mussed and a little sweaty from being inside her helmet, but he liked it all the same.

"A little birdy tells me you have a new assignment, and you will be coming with us to Corus." Her long-lashed hazel eyes smiled as she said it.

Dom grinned at her and looked past her shoulder to see Tobe picking up a tray. "Tobe! I thought I told you I wanted to tell everyone!"

The boy paused from selecting a bread roll and scowled. "No, you only said you wanted to tell Sir Neal!"

Kel glanced at her faithful shadow and laughed. "Well, the cat is out of the bag now. Congratulations," she said quietly, gripping his arm briefly and smiling warmly.

He smiled, and squashed the brief urge to touch his arm where her hand had been.

"Well, we can chat after lunch. I'm going to go and catchup on some paper work." Leaning closer, told her in a conspirational whisper, "Neal has fished all of the vegetables out of his soup."

Kel rolled her eyes, but smiled. "Then I had better get to him before he can make an escape."


A/N:

First fic. I am totally meant to be studying...