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LADY KNIGHT VOLANT : A TORTALLAN CONTINUATION
Part I – Samradh
June – August, 461 HE
Chapter One — Returning
"We can't go much further tonight, Kel."
Trudging beside Peachblossom in the summer dusk the grim-faced young woman in armour looked wearily round at Neal, walking beside Magewhisper. Each warhorse bore three young children, and though neither animals nor people were complaining she could see how tired all were. Behind her many children were nodding as they rode or stumbling as they walked, and the half-starved adult refugees were close to exhaustion. Looking ahead she could see Dom's squad on point were faring better, but the sparrows who had been scouting for them had begun to roost on the warhorses' manes. Uinse and the other convict soldiers were struggling, and all the dogs had lolling tongues. Kel's own legs were a burning, leaden ache, but had she been on her own she would have walked until she dropped.
"No, I know."
Neal grimaced sympathy with the frustration in her voice. Since leaving Castle Rathhausak in flames behind them four days before they had seen no sign of pursuit, but just being in enemy territory made his shoulder-blades itch. For Kel the responsibility of command made it worse, and he knew she had despite everything hoped to reach Tortallan soil today, or at least to contact the smugglers. When in mid-morning Tobe had been able to summon from the river-meadows the Scanran horses he'd persuaded to wait there a week before, on their outward journey, Neal had himself hoped that with extra mounts they might make it today. But logistics dictated otherwise. Driven as all were by fear of pursuit and hope of sanctuary, sixteen knights and soldiers, one-hundred-and-eighty-three rescued children ranging from infancy to the cusp of adulthood, three injured Tortallan civilians, and more than forty painfully thin Scanran refugees did not—could not—cover ground at more than a walk. Without the scores of horses they'd taken from the stables at Rathhausak it wouldn't have been even that.
"We need to be in better shape to cross the Vassa anyway. And Mithros knows what the smugglers will say when we show up, especially if the others crossed a few days back."
He saw Kel try to summon a grin, then simply nod.
"I've wondered about that. We're hardly what they bargained for. But the flatboats Stenmun used might be on this side of the Vassa, and I want to take all the horses across if we can. Else we'll be crawling for another week to reach Mastiff." Kel stumbled, righting herself with effort and reaching up to steady the five-year-old sitting on her shoulders. "Sorry, Meech," she murmured, but the boy hadn't woken from the doze Neal's healing of his gashed leg had induced.
"Mmm. Flatboats. Lovely." Neal's mind caught up with his mouth, and he frowned. "You think they'll refuse us help?"
"No." Without Meech's weight and her wound Kel might have shrugged. "We'd have nowhere to go, and I think that old mage would weigh in. But I don't want to be leaving a trail of IOUs. It won't help."
Neal thought about that, blinking. "Help with what?"
Kel's look tried for Yamani-blank but was tinged with emotions he couldn't identify.
"With whatever charges we face. Dom and his men are covered by Raoul's orders, but I don't know about the rest of us. And there's the Scanran refugees too—that's already a hefty bill for food and shelter."
Neal blinked again. "Kel, you can't seriously be worrying about that? We're heroes, for Mithros's sake!" His voice was indignant. "We've rescued more than four hundred people—I still can't believe it—and killed almost as many Scanrans. Even the Stump's not going to punish you for that!"
Kel sighed, again reaching up to steady Meech. "Who says the decision'll be in his hands? Neal, every one of us under arms, except Dom and his squad, is guilty of whatever mix of disobedience, mutiny, desertion, and treason General Vanget or the King chooses to charge us with." Her forehead creased. "I hope and pray you are safe, on your father's account and as a healer, and I've more-or-less persuaded myself that if they don't charge you they can't charge Merric, Esmond, or Seaver. And the other ranks and convicts can say they just did as they were ordered." She grimaced. "But I'm worried for Owen."
Neal frowned, surprised by the political flavour and not liking the implications. "And you, Kel? You really think you'll face a charge of some kind? What about your father's account? Your parents are central to the Yamani treaty."
"Maybe so, but I can't hide behind the treaty. It might compromise Cricket and Yuki. And Roald. They have a bad enough time of it already."
"What? Why does Yuki have a bad time of it?"
Kel shook her head, as much as Meech's dangling legs allowed. "Just as Yamanis, Neal—funny-faced barbarians, remember, defiling the realm. Do you really want to add association with treason?"
"Only the dimmest conservatives could think that."
This time Kel did manage a crooked grin. "Who are among the most important and vocal, Meathead." The grin faded. "Think about it, Neal. If the King knows—and I bet he does—the Council will be involved, and some of the worst conservatives are on it. What kind of golden opportunity do you think my undoubted mutiny and arguable treason offers them?" Neal scowled. "They'll be drooling for my head. And what kind of defence is rescuing commoners? Bringing extra foreign mouths to feed when we can barely feed our own?"
Neal's scowl became thunderous. "And killing the necromancer whose machines were Scanra's best weapons and whom everyone's been searching for since the war began? Not to mention burning Maggot's castle. Kel, I know you don't like Jonathan, and Mithros knows I don't blame you, but he's not stupid. You've done a great thing, and he'll see that." He paused, looking at Kel, before adding shrewdly, "He'll also know, as will the Stump and Vanget, that if he tries to punish you as a sop to conservatives who haven't left Corus since the war began, he'll have a lot of very unhappy people to contend with."
Kel shook her head minutely again. "The Lioness can't shield me from this, Neal, nor should she. She has her own duty to discipline."
"I didn't mean my esteemed former knight mistress, Kel, or even Raoul, Buri, the Wildmage, and Master Numair—though their collective anger is … well, unimaginable, actually." He was rewarded with a ghostly grin. "I didn't even mean all the Tortallan refugees you've just rescued, though I bet they'd be pretty vocal too."
"So who did you mean?"
"The Own and the rank-and-file of the army."
Kel's eyebrows rose. "Who have what to do with the price of peas in Persopolis?"
Neal managed a tired snort. "You have no idea how they think of you, have you?" Needing no answer he pushed on. "You know the troops assigned to Haven as well as any commander can, and the refugees in your care. But you only see the rank-and-file of the army or the Own in passing or in battle, except for Dom's squad, and you think they're exceptions because you happened to be in command when you all met that first killing device. But I see them when they're injured, or visiting friends who are, or trying to scrounge herbs and balms. And I know what they say about you. Even what they feel."
They trudged on for a bit, feeling the strain as the trail rose towards a bend. Neal entertained himself watching the struggle on Kel's face. She was so tired—and, he suspected, in so much pain from her half-healed wound and morbid thoughts—that her Yamani mask was barely working, and he had long ago learned to read her blankness better than most. It wasn't until the trail flattened, narrowing as it turned into a wood, that she gave in.
"So what do they think and even feel, Wise Healer?"
The mock-title stung a little, but Mithros knew she needed all the comfort she could get, though he thought her fears exaggerated.
"They admire you." He tried for a healer's detached tone. "Love you, even, as a symbol, yes, but also as a reality. 'Protector of the Small' will just cap it." Her bewildered look was pleasing, and a rueful memory drifted into his mind of Tobe explaining with barely suppressed laughter that Peachblossom savaged him so often because 'he likes the noise you make when you're bit'. "Kel, besides the Own and the soldiers at Haven, a lot of companies have rotated through Steadfast and Mastiff since this war began. The sentries and night patrols see you waving that glaive every morning before dawn. Soldiers talk to one another, you know, and they hear from the refugees too, about the way you've trained them and how you run Haven."
Kel blinked. "They do?"
"Of course they do, Kel. More than half the Haven adults are women, many single or widowed, and those are in short supply at army forts in wartime. With all the training in self-defence you've given them, they're also pretty picky about whom they see. So word passes—along with other things—and by now I shouldn't think there's a soldier on this front who doesn't know about the Lady Knight Commander." He summoned strength to wave a hand airily. "And it's not that freak-show woman warrior thing you hate so much. It's the noble lady who backs her commoners against all comers, the green commander whose first act was to throw her predecessor's whip into the midden, the woman who rescued an orphaned horsemage from an abusive master"—he grinned—"and the twelve-year-old page who took the mean-dog skinner Breakbone Dell squarely in the tripes."
Neal cursed himself as Kel's wide eyes darkened with painful memory of Gil Lofts, who had spread that tale and burned in the Tortallan pyre at Rathhausak, but he was saved further mistakes as they rounded another bend to emerge from trees into a small valley with a stream chuckling through its meadow. Dom's scouts had halted on the far side and the man himself waited a dozen yards ahead, eyebrows raised in silent question. Kel nodded and without breaking stride swung round to walk backwards, producing a version of her command voice that made everyone listen without stopping them in their tracks.
"People! We're entering a small valley with a stream, and we'll camp here tonight. Children, keep together, older caring for younger, and find a latrine area. Don't bother digging trenches, but make sure it's downstream of the camp. Owen's in charge. Dom and his squad on sentry duty. Uinse, you and yours on KP, and gather dry firewood." There were tired cheers, and Kel smiled. "We've seen no-one and we need hot food, but douse them as soon as cooking's done. Civilians, please help the cooks and children as you can, but stay inside the perimeter. Tobe and Zerhalm, the horses, ponies, and dogs. Any blisters, sores, or footrot to Sir Neal. All clear?"
A lone voice called back. "And what are you doing, Lady Kel?"
Kel scowled magnificently. "Writing a report with no paper and less ink, Jacut. Elsewise the army'll stop in its tracks, you know that."
A murmuring laugh went up, and Neal grinned. "See, Kel? I told you."
Kel had actually completed her report the night before, unable to sleep, and to update it with the extra horses and absence of Scanran troops throughout the day took only a moment. Then she wandered round, checking with Tobe and Zerhalm that the animals were alright and feeding sleepy sparrows berries she'd collected during the day. She also slipped Peachblossom a wrinkled apple she'd kept back from her own rations, and leaned against his warm bulk before forcing herself back to her rounds. After making sure the firewood was bone dry, and seeing the cooks start to heat soup and stew game the dogs had caught during the day, she headed over to the children, trying to radiate good cheer. Their courage amazed her, but despite the lack of complaint she knew all were suffering not only the pains of riding and walking for so long but also the lingering terrors of their abduction. Owen had been wonderful with them throughout the journey, and even now was patiently helping some five- and six-year-olds scared of the dark yards to the latrine area, but he was deeply grieved by the loss of Happy and not his usual, ebullient self at all. With Loesia and other older ones Kel cuddled and played with the littles, offering the solace of attention and her determination that they would all soon be safe.
After a while, having seen to the adults' needs, Neal joined them, checking for blisters and bruises and pulsing bursts of his Gift into small hands, thighs, and feet. After dealing with some grim saddle-sores on a mute eight-year-old he sat beside Kel as she finished a story about Daine winning a snow-fight one Midwinter by transforming herself into an ice-bear.
"I remember that. Master Numair was still shouting about her cheating when she rolled him into a snowdrift." He grinned at the avid children. "The complaints went on until Imbolc, at least! But what of you, Lady Knight? Any blisters to be healed? And how's your shoulder? I've still some juice left."
Kel smiled wryly. Neal had half-recovered from draining his Gift at Rathhausak, saving her as well as Tobe, Saefas, and two of the convicts and trying vainly to save Gil Lofts, but thin rations, little sleep, daily slog, and the constant call for minor healings were no recipe for swift recharge.
"It's well enough, Neal." And hurt abominably. "Save yourself against need. And to get better faster"—she gathered the littles with her eye and they chorused with her—"eat your vegetables!"
Neal scowled. "Conspiracy! You have no respect! It's meat I need to be a proper meathead, not all that green stuff." The hushed giggles of the children were a kind of music, he thought, but as he cudgelled his brains for more jokes to offer Dom came to report.
"Fires lit, soup heating, rabbits and squirrels stewing nicely, and perimeter secure, Kel. No alarms, but those stormwings who've been following us have roosted nearby—again."
"The same ones? You're sure?"
"Yes. I recognise that female Yamani one who was watching us at the castle." He frowned. "They're keeping their distance. And keeping quiet." A shrug. "Do you want me to try to speak to them?"
"No." Kel shook her head. "Leave well alone, and let's hope they do the same. But make sure all the sentries know where they are, please."
"Will do. Food'll be ready soon, younglings."
They cheered quietly as he walked away and Kel marvelled again at their spirit.
"Alright, then. Everyone ready to eat? Hands and faces washed?"
By the time the children regathered, soup was ready—watered to stretch, but very welcome just the same. With so many mouths and such pressing haste food was a serious problem, and only the trail rations and cured meats they'd taken from Rathhausak had made it possible for all to have enough to keep going—but supplies for two-hundred-and-forty-six people walking more than a hundred miles over the best part of a week meant packhorses, forcing children who might have ridden to walk and slowing their progress down the Pakkai and Smiskir valleys. The dogs—and the one cat—had helped enormously with rabbits and squirrels they'd brought in, asking only for the guts and lights, but without the boarhound Shepherd, another casualty at Rathhausak, none could take larger game even if they started some. After tonight no soup-balls remained, breakfast would use the last trail rations, and Kel was horribly aware that if the smugglers—or if they were lucky, Tortallan troops—couldn't feed them tomorrow, she'd have no choice but to slaughter at least one horse. Tobe knew it too, and was grimly determined it wouldn't come to that.
The convict ladling out portions of rabbit-and-squirrel stew peered at Kel shrewdly before making sure she got some extra meat, withering her protest with a glance at the visible gauntness of her wrist as she held out her plate. She also received an oversize portion of a tasteless vegetable mass that might once have been roots, and after finishing the few mouthfuls of stew applied herself conscientiously to it with sidelong glances at Neal that drew a scowl from him and laughter from the nearest children.
"Just think of the advantages, Neal. You'll never be able to complain about regular vegetables again."
His scowl deepened comically. "No vegetables are regular. And advantages for whom?"
"Yuki, mostly. And everyone who ever eats with you."
"Ha. My Yamani rose completely understands the horror of vegetables." He frowned. "Though why she thinks pickling everything helps is a mystery even to me."
Kel laughed. "Yuki made tsukemono? Good for her. Did she tell you there are markets in the Islands that sell nothing else? Just hundreds and hundreds of pickles."
"She said something like that, but there can't really be hundreds of pickles, can there? There aren't that many different vegetables."
"Of course there are. But it's not just what you pickle, it's what you pickle it in. There's brine and vinegar, of course—but Yamanis use sake, cider, beers, oils, and wines of all kinds, and any of those can be specially flavoured. I remember loving the smell the first time I visited a pickle-market, when I sneaked out with the palace cooks who were buying supplies. I think I was six." She smiled at the memory as she chewed her last, tasteless mouthful, wishing she had some umeboshi now; the tart sweetness of the pickled plums would help anything go down. "Will you and Yuki visit the Islands on honeymoon?"
Neal's face softened. "War permitting. After I proposed to her the Lioness helped us speak to her parents, in the fire, but she wants me to meet them properly."
"And show you off to her many cousins, I should think, as well as around the palace. You'll be toast."
"A fate I shall meet with my usual wit and dignity."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
The banter was cheering, and Kel could see the children relaxing with the warmth in their bellies and the humour in adult voices, but her fears weighed on her as bitterly as a new training-harness. To have exposed herself to a justified call for her head was, she knew all too well, the stupidest thing she could possibly have done, but she also knew that in the same circumstances she'd do it again, unhesitatingly. The possibility of having to make such a decision had been a bruise in her mind ever since the Chamber had shown her its appalling vision of Blayce's workshop, and one part of her still felt a kind of relief that at least the waiting was over, come what may. But that may was fearful, and at worst might prove a bitter social and political shame for her family as well as a place on Traitor's Hill for herself. The thought of the pain she might cause those she loved made her cringe, though she hoped and believed her punishment would be kept an army matter. King Jonathan had always preferred clean hands.
Pushing down the black mood she hauled herself upright, wincing at the stiffness already gathering in her legs, and collected empty bowls from the children to rinse and return to the cooks. Uinse, Jacut, and the other convict soldiers on KP had needed no orders to feed themselves or to keep soup and stew back for Dom's squad, whom they now relieved on watch. She greeted her first true comrades-in-arms softly as they drifted in from the perimeter, and sat with them companionably as they ate. Fulcher and Lofren were the squad's first losses since Derom and Symric had been killed at Forgotten Well the year before, and the deaths had hit them hard, especially Dom. Like Owen, he'd been unflagging but without his usual cheer, and her own grief left her feeling she had nothing to offer him in comfort; not that anything anyone could offer would change the facts. The convict squads, issued inferior equipment and far less well trained despite her efforts in the time she and Merric had had charge of them, had suffered much more seriously, losing six of fourteen at Rathhausak as well as the man they'd found hanged by the slavers at Pakkai junction—but they hadn't been together as long and had yet to develop the intense camaraderie of the Own.
Clearing his plate, Dom set it down and looked around.
"Same shifts as last night, and keep an eye on those stormwings." They all nodded. "Orders for tomorrow, Lady Kel? Straight on to the main crossing or turn off for the smugglers' den?"
"Straight on, Dom. We're too many for the narrow tracks, and it would add miles to the journey. I'm hoping there'll be flatboats this side of the Vassa, but if they're on the Tortallan side we'll have to ask the smugglers to run them across to us."
"Makes sense." He paused. "I'm half-expecting a picket at the crossing, though, if the other lot made it back with the adults. I don't know how long it would have taken them with so many on foot, but from their trail-sign they're at least three days ahead of us, so they should have reached Tortall two days ago, latest. Maybe three. And with any luck they'll have met a patrol and got messengers off. It depends who's making decisions but I'll be surprised if a lot of orders haven't already been given."
Kel nodded, having made the same calculations herself. "Let's hope so. But while I've got you all here there is one other thing, because we might not like some of those orders."
To her surprise it was Wolset who broke the tense silence.
"Worried about punishments, Lady Kel? Sir Neal said you was. But he's right—we're the heroes, this time."
"I hope so, Wolset. And I thank the gods you're all protected by my Lord's orders. But however you cut it, Owen and all the knights, including me, are likely to be in hot water. But whatever happens to us I don't want any of you getting yourselves in trouble protesting." She held up a hand to forestall retorts. "I mean it. If it is bad, and it might be, it'll be dangerous to mess with. But what I really wanted to ask you all was to look out for Tobe, if I can't. Get him to Onua Chamtong, will you? Or to Daine. He'll be safe and valued there."
"We will, Kel. I will. But for once I agree with Sir Meathead—you're not thinking straight." Dom's look was as shrewd as the convict's who'd served her food. "Almost as if you think you ought to be punished for what happened at Haven, rather than rewarded for an astonishing rescue and killing that godshat mage."
He spat aside as Kel blinked surprise at his blasphemy, a rarity despite often colourful language with his men.
"But I don't think my Lord'll see it that way, or even Sir Meathead's Stump." Dom stood, stretching. "Nor yet the King. But that's for later. For now, first shift, on your way, and let Uinse's boys get some kip. I'll bed down here until third shift—wake me at need and take no chances. Clear?" There were nods all round. "Walk with me a moment, Kel? I haven't shown you where the stormwings are."
"Of course." She let him pull her up, feeling even in her bone-weariness a little heartflutter at his touch and the concern in his blue eyes. But nothing showed in her face: she'd realised long ago that her scarred, thickset body could offer nothing like the graceful curves Dom sought out at the Palace, and she wouldn't risk a crucial friendship over hopeless mooning. As the squad headed back on watch or to their bedrolls, they walked slowly upstream, stopping short of the perimeter where Alden of Uinse's squad stood guard. The convict's mark on his forehead showed pale as he turned to look at them, nodding respect before looking outwards again. Their own eyes automatically scanned the meadow and the darker treeline beyond. Dom spoke quietly without turning his head.
"I've been thinking about the reports we need to make, Kel. Not just the combat report, though that's going to make good reading, but the situation report." He paused, tensing as an owl hooted in the forests, then eased again. "Real one. Of course the King needs to know about Blayce's death, if he doesn't already. But I reckon the story those villagers have to tell ought to be made known, among Scanran soldiers as well as our own." He glanced at her, then looked at his feet. "Until this week they were just the enemy to me, you know, but now I'm wondering how many of the soldiers we've been fighting knew how those killing devices were made. A liegelord who kills his own liegers' children …"
"I know, Dom, and I'll say so, believe me. Burning the castle will mean something to Scanrans too—it's a blódbeallár challenge, their blood and clan law. Besides, if the villagers are known witnesses as victims of Maggur's atrocities it'll secure their protection as well."
"Still thinking of others." His voice was wry. "And what of the commander who rescued them? No, don't answer. Just tell me if you're going to bother telling anyone the Chamber of the Ordeal was involved."
Kel waited as Wolset passed them on his way to relieve Alden and the convict headed back to camp.
"That's tricky, Dom. You saw how Merric and the others reacted to anything about the Chamber. If even my friends don't really believe me, why should anyone else?" He was silent. "I have to mention Irnai to explain why the villagers were so ready to help us, and anyone who sees her eyes will know she's one of Shakith's chosen. But if I start saying the Chamber chose me specially … well, my Lord might believe me, but gods, imagine the fuss and jeering there'd be." She strove to keep bitterness out of her voice, looking away from him. "You know Stone Mountain and his cronies already claim I've corrupted the Chamber by being allowed to enter it, and I've just handed them a giant Midsummer gift by inviting any one of three capital charges. I don't think either saying I'm a special case or admitting to nightmares and hearing voices would help."
When she looked back at Dom he was staring at her. "You do have witnesses, you know," he said gently. "Neal, Owen, and I all heard it speak through Irnai."
"And how do you know that was the Chamber?"
"You said it was …" His voice tailed away. "Oh. Mithros."
"Exactly. There's no proof at all, Dom, unless the Chamber provides some, and I can't count on that. It's got no manners anyway."
Her grumpiness provoked a short laugh but Dom's eyes were troubled. "Even so, Kel, promise me you'll tell my Lord, Lord Wyldon, and the King? They ought to know and the King can truthspell you if he wants."
Kel thought about it. "Alright, Dom, those three. But why do you think they need to know? There's nothing any of them can do about it."
It was his turn to look away.
"I'm not sure, but I feel it's so." He hunched inside his filthy tunic. "I've never been much for talking of the gods. I'm a soldier. I just get on with what needs doing. But that old mage said the hand of fate was on you, and when I heard that awful voice come out of a little girl I knew the gods were watching us and I think they still are. In any case, the King should know what the Chamber did in case it happens again."
"I suppose. And I do promise. Now, where are those stormwings?"
He accepted the change of subject and gestured up the valley. "About half-a-mile, to the west. Why do you think they're following us?"
Kel shook her head. "I don't know, Dom. They've spoken to me twice now. When I was between Haven and Giantkiller one mocked me—well, rebuked me really—for assuming they'd defile a body I found. One of the clerks, who'd bled out. But back at Haven that Yamani female said they were half-sorry to have soiled our dead because it was a refugee camp." Anger laced her voice. "She also said I was the only Tortallan commander who didn't let them have the enemy dead, and if I had they might have restrained themselves. That's partly why I left them the Scanran dead at Rathhausak."
She sighed. "If anyone ever deserved to be stormwing toys it was Stenmun and his crew. And we couldn't burn or bury them, so I hoped for a profit on necessity. But I really don't think the stormwings will try to harm us, and they might even warn us of any Scanrans. This will sound odd, but I think they might be guarding us, in a way. Daine once told me they like children, and feel for them."
"Apparently. She said they have a hard time birthing their own young, and don't like to see anyone's mistreated. So maybe we're in their good books just now."
"Huh. You never know what'll you'll learn next." A genuine smile lit his face and her heart fluttered again. "You realise that makes them surprisingly like you? Terrors of the battlefield with soft spots for any youngling in trouble?" He laughed aloud at the indignation on her face. "Protector of the Small."
"Oy!" She punched his arm, without force. "I hate that name."
"Get used to it, Kel. It's going to stick." She made a face and he laughed again, softly. "I promise I'll make Wolset stick to 'Mother', though, so you can rest easy." He dodged a fist with more power behind it. "Hey, it's better than 'Sir Meathead', isn't it?"
"Not by much, Dom. And if you tell anyone you think I'm like a stormwing, Tortall will not be big enough to hide in. That's a promise too."
He raised his hands in mock-surrender, pleased to have lightened her mood. "Of course. But in that case we'd best shut up before we attract Wolset's attention any more. We should get our heads down anyway if we're moving at dawn."
With everyone eager to reach Tortall they were on the move before dawn. The high cloud cover of recent days had cleared overnight and the waning gibbous moon gave enough light to break camp. The children ate the remaining rations on the move, and false dawn found them all more than a mile on their way. Soon sunshine began slanting across trees and meadows soft with summer growth, lifting hearts and hopes; the sparrows flew off to scout, and Kel picked up the pace a little. Of the stormwings there was no sign.
With the sun still rising the trail topped a hill and they came to the true valley of the Vassa, catching a first glimpse of its waters sparkling to the south. Stepping up for a moment on Peachblossom's stirrup, Kel realised they were a lot closer to the crossing-point than she'd thought, then whipped her head round as she heard Dom's voice and Jump's bark raised in challenge up the trail. A man had stepped out of the trees a dozen yards in front of them, hands wide.
Calling a command to halt Kel dropped back to the ground, told Peachblossom to stay with Neal, and forced herself into a jog. Coming closer she realised it was one of the smugglers they'd met on the far bank; his gaze raked her, then flicked to the children on Peachblossom's and Magewhisper's backs.
"You got your younglings, then. All of them?" He spoke in Common.
"Yes, we got them."
"And the Kinslayer?"
"Dead, with his mage-master."
"Ah." His fist clenched. "Whose hand?"
Kel blinked. "Mine, if it matters. The castle's burned, too. And the survivors of Rathhausak village are with us."
"Ah." He spat aside and then to Kel's complete astonishment bowed to her. "Old Gella was right, Lady. Fate walked with you. And if ever a man needed killing, it was the Kinslayer."
Kel shrugged, wincing as her wound pulsed. "No argument from me. And thank you." She decided there was no point in fencing. "Have you seen the other knights and the adults?"
"Ay, we took them across three nights back. All two hundred and more." He shook his head as Kel felt a weight lift from her. "More like ferrymen than honest smugglers."
She grinned. "Come peacetime you could try it. Do you know if the flatboats are on this side of the water?"
He grinned back. "They're not. But there's a bunch of maroon soldiers guarding them on the other, and a picket on this, with the ropes strung." Kel and Dom both sighed relief and the smuggler grinned again. "You won't need us today—and a good thing if you've as many horses as I reckon you must." He glanced up at the clear sky. "Good weather, too. The Vassa's running calm as she ever does and you needn't worry about Maggur's men. They crossed to the west ten days back, and lost a battle the day after full moon. No survivors made it back this far east and there's none within ten miles now. I think luck walks with you as well as fate, Lady."
He turned back towards the trees.
"Wait." Kel closed the distance between them and stuck out her hand. "Thank you, for everything. We wouldn't have made it in time without your help, and your news now is trebly welcome."
His eyebrows rose but he took her hand gingerly. "You made good use of our help, Lady, and many beside me will drink to the Kinslayer's death this night."
She let him go and he vanished among the trees in less than a minute. Dom shook his head, and Nari peeped apologetically from his shoulder.
"Like a ghost. Sorry, Lady Kel. We should have flushed him earlier. I'll be having words. Still, trebly welcome is right—the others all safe and help waiting at the crossing."
Kel nodded, and gave a sharp whistle to summon Peachblossom and tell Wolset, with the rearguard, to get everyone else moving again. Dom looked at her thoughtfully.
"You think he's telling the truth there's no-one to hear us, then?"
"Yes. Remember Owen's tale of a major Scanran crossing at the full moon? It explains why we've seen no-one. Go find that picket and get the flatboats brought across?"
"Will do, Kel."
It was three miles before a side-trail forked off through a wooded notch in the bluffs and snaked down to the Vassa. Dom and his squad were clustered round four men in army maroon, and behind them Kel could see three flatboats being hauled across by more soldiers on thick ropes spanning the river. As she and Peachblossom trudged up to the talking men a hard-faced sergeant she didn't recognise stood forward and saluted her, eyes straying back along the column.
"Lady Knight. Sergeant Domitan says you have the refugee children and about forty Scanrans wanting sanctuary?"
"We do, yes. Two-hundred-and-forty-six people, all told, Sergeant, including one-hundred-and-eighty-three children. Plus eleven dogs, a cat, and about one-hundred-and-eighty horses and ponies."
He whistled, but army discipline and experience held. "Well, that'll take some ferrying. We'll get started as soon as the boats get across." He glanced back at the men hauling on the river. "Five minutes, about. You're to head straight to Mastiff, my Lady. The other refugees you sent back with Sir Merric are there. There's not enough barrack-space inside, so some are in tents outside the walls, but we couldn't feed 'em anywhere else."
"Very well. And speaking of food, do you have any spare, Sergeant? The children have gone short for days."
He looked at her steadily. "You too, my Lady, by your face. We weren't issued much more than trail-rations but we've taken some small game. I'll get it heating and send word to Mastiff you need a cook-wagon to meet you tomorrow. For tonight, there's a way-point about twenty miles east with enough for a full company at least."
"Thank you, Sergeant. That all sounds good. Now, how is this going to work?"
It took the rest of the morning and half the afternoon, as well as heroic efforts by Tobe and Zerhalm in coaxing the horses and ponies onto the rocking flatboats. Kel dreaded to think what it would have been like without fresh soldiers working in relay on the ropes. She also sent silent thanks to any gods who might be listening for the sunshine and relative benignity of the fierce river. By common consent the children went first, older mixed among younger to keep them together on the far side and help with feeding them. When all were across the long process of ferrying horses began, Scanran adults among them in fours and fives to keep them calm, until only Kel and the friends who had accompanied her north were left to clamber aboard with their warhorses and be drawn slowly back to the Tortallan bank.
By the time they disembarked most children were already remounted and within a few minutes the motley column was again underway. Five soldiers from the picket reinforced Dom's squad as point and rearguard, and in little more than an hour the trail spilled onto the main road between Northwatch and Frasrlund. The broader, well-kept pathway allowed the horses to spread out and their pace to quicken, and as the sun westered Kel realised with a tightening chest that the younger children had begun to talk and laugh as they rode. She met Neal's eyes and knew he shared her emotion.
"I hadn't realised how unnatural their silence was. Or how good it would be hear them sound carefree again."
"Me either. I'll sleep better tonight than I have for a while. They will, too, as the nightmares fade."
"Let's hope so. Are there any you're worried about?" Kel shook her head. "What a dumb question. What they lived through was giving me nightmares from five hundred miles away."
"I knew what you meant, and yes, there's some who'll need help. Maybe for a while." Neal gave a crooked smile. "We never really talk about this sort of thing, except among healers, and there isn't usually much we can do except listen to people. Just make sure their carers know, if a child starts to talk about it, don't hush them, let it spill." His face grew thoughtful. "It's like infection, I think. Talking's a way of draining the wound so it can heal."
Kel chewed on the idea, wondering what her Yamani and Tortallan selves thought. "That makes sense. I danced round this with Yuki and Cricket once, when they were having a heart-to-heart about something. But they tried to use my experience with my ma and the raiders as an example, and I loved that memory so I didn't really understand what they were saying."
Neal looked at her sidelong. "You should have told them about your dear brother dangling you off a tower."
No longer batophobic, Kel still winced at the memory. "But it was real heights that scared me, not dream ones." She frowned, searching her mind. "Come to think of it, I never really had nightmares before I met the Chamber."
"Those 'Nothing Man' visions Tobe mentioned?"
"Yes. And before that one with Lalasa and Cricket and everyone being auctioned off to Joren, or killed when he rejected them."
"What?" Neal's eye were wide. "When was this?"
"After Joren's trial. I tested myself against the Chamber door, and that was what it showed me. For months I saw it whenever I slept."
"Wait. You touched the Chamber door again?"
"Of course I did. Doesn't everyone?"
His eyebrows almost reached the unkempt hair sticking out under his helmet. "No, Kel, they don't. And I told you not to. Why did you? Because of what Joren said at the trial?"
"No. not really. I was doing it anyway, and that's what happened that time."
"That time? Kel, please don't tell me you did this more than twice?"
She stared at him with genuine puzzlement. "Of course I did, about every six months. I thought you all did, but no-one said anything because you don't, about the Chamber, and because it's all too personal and horrible anyway." A thought clicked. "Are you telling me that when you entered the Chamber for your Ordeal you'd only approached it once before?"
"Too right I am. Once is plenty."
Kel stared again. "Neal, that's crazy. Don't you believe in scouting?"
"Oh, I like that. You put yourself through tortures no-one else even thinks of doing and I'm crazy?" He shook his head sorrowfully. "All I can say, Kel, is that if you were chatting on a regular basis with that, that, sessile psychopath, no wonder it picked you for a mission."
"Huh." They walked on, each digesting surprise. "What's a sessile psychopath?"
"A criminal lunatic that stays in one place."
"Huh." A long pause. "It's not mad. Or criminal. It's just not human, nor mortal. Master Numair said it was an elemental, but I never really understood what that is." A shorter pause. "And you heard it talking through Irnai. That's not staying in place."
"True." He frowned. "You should tell someone about that, actually. Who knows what the mobile psychopath will do next?"
"Oh hush." They passed a berry bush and Kel grabbed a handful for the sparrows who flitted back to rest on Peachblossom's mane between scouting patterns. "Dom said I should report it as well."
"For once he's right. Joking aside, Kel, the King ought to know it happened. It might happen again. And Lord Padraig, I suppose, in case it happens to anyone else."
"I promised him I would." A very long pause. "I've been regretting it ever since."
"Why d'you think, Neal? The Girl claims a special relationship with the Chamber of the Ordeal. Right." Her voice dropped to a mutter. "Perhaps I slept with it, somewhere between all of you and Third Company."
Despite himself Neal laughed, then sobered. "I see your point, Kel, but Dom is right. This truth matters more than those stupid conservative lies."
They rode in companionable silence, listening to the children, as shadows lengthened and the long dusk began. It was almost over, the summer stars beginning to show, when they came to the way-point, a clearing on the far side of a little ford, to find Dom's squad and the army men had already started fires and set cauldrons of soup and what smelled like boar stew heating. They'd also broken out bales of hay for the horses and ponies, who pushed forward impatiently as they were relieved of their burdens and unsaddled. Kel secured some for Peachblossom before turning back to the mob of waiting children.
With extra hands available end-of-day chores seemed ridiculously easier, but the children's relaxation was great enough that despite tiredness their play became more energetic, and for the first time Kel could remember minor squabbles broke out. Picking apart two entangled six-year-olds, orphans from Goatstrack, Kel found herself helped by a strange corporal, an older man who must have had children of his own and effortlessly held one crying youngster while Kel held the other. Mindful of Neal's words she let the tears flow, rocking the boy gently, and saw the corporal doing likewise. As sobs subsided he gave a smile.
"How far've you come wiv 'em, me Lady?" His voice had the unmistakeable accent of the Corus slums.
Kel added it up. "They were taken twelve days ago, and this'll be the sixth night since we rescued them. We've come a bit over a hundred miles."
He gave her a respectful look. "Fair speed wiv such a passel o' kids. It must 'ave been 'ard for you."
"Actually, they've been as good as gold, corporal. This is the first fussing we've had, even from the littles. It's just that they're relaxing, I think."
"Ah." He set his burden down, and Kel did likewise, crouching to hug both children and gently admonish them to wash their hands and faces before eating. As they ran off, tears forgotten, he looked at her again, his eyes sad. "It was that bad, then?"
She nodded. "It was, corporal. Not our journey, so much, but their capture and what came after. They've all seen things no-one should ever have to see."
"Ah. Well, they're rescued now. I should get some wood." He half-turned away, then swung back. "Beggin' your pardon, me Lady, but what did the Scanrans want 'em for? From what the other lot said it weren't just for slaves."
Kel hesitated but decided the soldier as much as the children deserved the truth, which was no secret anyway. "They were going to make more killing devices, corporal. One from each child murdered. And from what we saw and heard at Rathhausak, probably raped first by the mage doing the death-magic."
"No!" Eyes wide he spat, making the gods'-circle on his chest. "Black God take that mage."
"He already has."
"Ah, gods all bless you, me Lady."
"It was my pleasure, corporal." She hesitated again, but hope and curiosity won. "Tell me, do you know if anything happened to the killing devices already in the field, about six days ago?"
He nodded vigorously, eyes widening again. "They all stopped, me Lady, or so I 'eard back at Mastiff before I left. I ain't seen them meself, but command was all runnin' round squawkin' on—let me see, now—the mornin' o' the eleventh, it bein' the sixteenth today. An' what the clerks said was, it was coz the killin' devices 'ad stopped 'ere an' at Frasrlund an' the City o' the Gods." He stopped to let Kel complete her muttered prayer of thanks to Mithros, his eyes sharp with calculation. "It was you what stopped 'em, then, me Lady?"
"That's when we killed the mage, yes. I hoped it'd mean all the devices stopped, but who knows what'll happen when mages are involved."
"You got that right, me Lady." He made the sign against evil again. "Should I tell others, then? About the devices stoppin', I mean. It's no secret they did."
Kel went to tell Neal herself, who gave his own thanks as a healer, and hugged her quickly, as did Fanche and Saefas. Dom and his men, she discovered, had already learned the news and were elated, remembering the first device they'd fought together at Forgotten Well and feeling that Lofren's and Fulcher's deaths had helped achieve even more than the rescue of the children. Their joviality drew in Uinse and the convicts, who also cheered, having themselves faced the devices both victoriously and in the horror of Haven's fall.
With all in good heart as well as better rations and bigger portions than any of them had seen in days there was real warmth in the evening conversation, though to Kel's mild irritation Wolset coaxed Irnai into repeating for the army men her prophecy of Kel's arrival. There was murmuring about the litany of names and unsubtle questions about Tobe as the 'horse boy' and Fanche as the 'bitter mother', as well as some very sidelong looks at the Protector of the Small. Neal, she thought glumly, was probably right that the Chamber's ridiculous tag would stick, and her only comfort was that fuller bellies made for sooner and sounder sleep.
They were later starting off the next morning, but not much, and the good trail with continuing fine weather allowed them to keep a faster pace. During the morning they crossed the Greenwoods River, passing the trail to Haven, and Kel found herself wondering with more urgency how Lord Wyldon would house the refugees. Haven itself was ruined beyond easy repair, and she thought the refugees would be as superstitious about rebuilding it as the soldiers were about rebuilding Giantkiller.
By the time dusk drew down Kel reckoned they'd managed more than forty miles in the day, double their average in Scanra, but it was eighty from the Vassa crossing to Mastiff. Their last night on the road was made easier still when they were met by the promised cook-wagon and a squad of soldiers escorting three healers, to offer Neal relief with the children. The faster passage had made for uglier saddle-sores and she gave thanks for someone's foresight—Lord Raoul's, she'd bet, though to be fair she knew that despite Lord Wyldon's manner as training-master he had his own soft spot for little ones.
With a proper breakfast and wonderfully fresh bread available they started later still, and at the healers' collective insistence kept the pace down, stopping frequently to allow children to switch places and animals. A further cook-wagon with a squad to guard it provided lunch and a longer break than usual, so it was early evening before Kel and Peachblossom led the long procession up the hillside into the great clearing that housed Mastiff. Coming from Haven she'd always ridden the courier-route over the hills, entering the open land from the north, and this western approach was unfamiliar—as were the scores of tents clustered around the fort, and the guards patrolling the treeline.
The sergeant who saluted them where the trail entered the clearing gave a hand-signal, and Kel was barely past him when she heard the horn-call rising behind her into the dusk. The answer was prompt, and before its echoes died she could see people running towards them from the tents, and more emerging from the fort. By the time the whole column had entered the meadow they were surrounded by the rescued adults from Haven, full of tears and joy as they welcomed children who scrambled down from patient horses and ponies to hug and be hugged. Mindful of how many were orphans Kel dismounted herself, seeing Neal, Owen, and Dom do the same, and began lifting more children down from the bigger horses, hugging each hard before letting them run or stand blinking, and turning for the next. Tobe, summoning abandoned horses for corralling and fodder, had a broad smile on his face, and the expressions of parents and carers reunited with children they'd seen carried off by Stenmun and his men brought a lump to her throat. When groups began clustering round her, muttering gruff thanks and praises, she didn't try to stop her tears. It wasn't sobs that would have called out her Yamani mask, even now, just a silent overflow of relief and simple happiness at duty done.
As the press eased she dried her face and led Peachblossom slowly towards the fort, Jump at her heels. Irnai skipped from among the Scanran refugees to grasp her hand, smiling. Kel smiled back, but her stomach hollowed as she realised why Irnai had sought her out, and her heart began to hammer as she caught sight of the three men standing outside the open gates of the fort, watching as the first children ran or were carried past them. Dom, carrying Meech and holding Gydo's hand, was well ahead of her, and she saw Lord Raoul clap him on his free shoulder, asking something that drew a laugh and a bantering reply she couldn't hear. Beside Raoul, the faces of Duke Baird and Lord Wyldon seemed blanker, though after a moment she saw Baird spot Neal in the group behind her and abruptly start towards him. Courteous as always he detoured to pass her and paused a moment, glancing curiously at Irnai.
"Congratulations, Keladry. I didn't think I'd ever see these children again."
His voice was warm but his attention was on Neal and she waved him on, heartened by his praise but steeling herself for what she knew must follow. The last yards before she reached her trainers and commanders seemed the longest of the whole journey. Finally she trudged to a halt before them both, let go of Irnai's hand, and was trying to bend her aching legs to go to one knee when Raoul stepped forward and swept her into a crushing hug that bought a bolt of pain to her wounded shoulder.
"Gods, Kel, don't ever scare me like that again." Easing back as he heard her grunt of pain his eyes searched hers. "You're hurt?"
"Just my shoulder, my Lord. It's still tender."
"Mmh. You've lost weight, too. Do you need a healer?"
"Not immediately, my Lord." Gently she disengaged from him, and turned to Lord Wyldon. His face was as emotionless as ever but his dark eyes were intent.
"Well, Mindelan? Report."
She drew a deep breath. "I'm very sorry for my disobedience, my Lord. But before what must happen, I do need to report, not only to you, but to my Lord of Goldenlake, General Vanget, and probably the King."
His eyes went cool. "Concerning?"
"Blayce Younger the Gallan, my Lord, and how he was doing what he was at Castle Rathhausak."
He exchanged a surprised look with Lord Raoul.
"Rathhausak? King Maggur's clan-fief?"
"Yes, sir." She rested a hand lightly on Irnai's shoulder, seeing the moment when both men caught sight of the seer's intense green eyes. "This is Irnai, lately of Rathhausak, who can witness certain things and has a story of her own. She's chosen of Shakith, I believe. And my Lord, the Scanran refugees with us are all that remains of Maggur's own liegemen. Will you ensure they're kept together, and safe? It worries me they might be targets, when he hears they've fled."
The look in Lord Wyldon's eyes was unreadable, but after a moment and another glance at Raoul he nodded, and gave orders to a waiting sergeant to make arrangements. The man loped off and his gaze came back to her.
"This report is urgent?"
Kel nodded. "Yes, my Lord. Not in the sense that lives depend on it, but … well, politically. There are things you should all know before you decide what to say about the killing devices."
Both men frowned, before Lord Raoul replied.
"You know they all collapsed? We assumed … yes, well, we had to say something, so we've put it about that a new mage has entered the war and disabled them. Should we not?"
Kel gave her limited shrug. "I'm not sure, my Lord, but there's a better story than that if you want it."
"Very well." Lord Wyldon's voice was brisk. "But in that case we should do it now, if you're up to it, Lady Knight." Turning, he sent a man to fetch Duke Baird and another to find someone whose name Kel didn't catch. "Vanget retires early when he can. Come. Let one of the men take your horse." He looked at Peachblossom. "And no nonsense out of you."
Peachblossom snorted, but let Kel reluctantly give his reins to a waiting soldier, patting his neck and wondering when—if—she'd see him again, or the sparrows perched on his mane and Jump trotting behind. Lord Wyldon had already turned and gone, and Lord Raoul had taken Irnai's hand and followed, bending absurdly to speak to the girl. With a juddering breath and a last glance after Peachblossom, Kel forced herself to follow them through the great gates of the fort.