A/N: Tumblrites—I'm so sorry that it took me three whole days to notice that I hadn't posted this chapter when I'd promised. As those of you in high school will know, we're getting up to the crunchtime for AP exams and that, as well as car trouble, just made the days fly right past. However, I hope to get the next chapter up within two or three weeks.
Disclaimer: Not Tamora Pierce, never have been. Enjoy!
Chapter 7: Raid
One night in mid-August, Neal lay dreaming of buzzards. Three soared through a gap between snow-dusted mountains and spiraled down toward a little cluster of brightly colored people gathered on a boulder.
Dream-Neal craned his neck to get a closer look. He did not recognize the landscape around him, but something about those figures looked vaguely familiar…
"Neal!" A voice—Thom's voice—lanced through his dream. "Get up!"
He jerked awake. Immediately he flinched away from the sphere of blinding violet-tinged light that blazed over the young mage's hand.
"Sorry," Thom said, pulling back the light. Groggily, Neal pushed himself into a sitting position.
"What are you doing here?" he mumbled.
"We've had a raid in the village," Thom said. "You're to arm up and then go get Darkmoon." Seeing Neal blink, he added, "Now!"
His voice cracked like a whip. Neal jumped so hard that he fell off his bed. Clearly, he thought, scrambling into his clothes, Lady Alanna had instructed her eldest son in more than swordplay and magic. She had also taught him how to yell like a drill sergeant. Neal yanked on his boots and grabbed his sword belt. Thom helped him don his hauberk, jerking the straps firmly into place.
"Thanks," Neal mumbled. Thom murmured a reply, back to his shy self. They parted ways in the hall; Thom headed back toward his tower workroom, while Neal rattled his way outside. By now, he knew his way well and clear to the stables. Branson was there, shaking out a horse blanket. He tossed it to Neal as the squire entered.
Neal snapped the blanket briskly and laid it over Darkmoon. He worked quickly to saddle the stallion, and then moved on to Mage Whisper. When he had finished, he double-checked the straps, and then led both horses out to the courtyard, where men-at-arms and servants bustled, preparing. Some readied wagons for transporting villagers. Others were checking armor and readying weapons. A line of guards trotted along the castle wall toward one of the tower decks.
Here came Lady Alanna down the front steps, fully armored and armed, her husband behind her.
"We'll have the lower levels open by the time you get back," the baron was telling her. "Get our people inside the walls first—then, as you do."
"I know, George," the Lioness said. She rubbed remnants of sleep from her eyes. Neal held Darkmoon as she mounted, then handed his knight-mistress the reins. He mounted Mage Whisper and urged his horse into a trot behind the Lioness as the castle gates swung open to let them out. Alanna spurred Darkmoon forward along the lane that led to the main road, Pirate's Swoop's warriors following at a brisk clip.
On Neal's right, down a long slope of sea-pounded rocks, lay the village, nestled by the cove that normally served as a harbor for its ships. It was the village he now heard—the distant screeching of animals, the clang of steel, the grumble of fire eating wooden struts and beams.
In front of him, the Lioness yanked a spyglass from its saddle holster and opened it with a practiced flick. She nudged Darkmoon off the road, guiding the stallion carefully down to a ledge where she could survey the village clearly.
"I want mounted men in front," she called up to her fighters as they rode past. "We're going to have to fight our way in. Foot soldiers cover the wagons and keep us an open way out. Empty wagons stay at the rear, clear of their fire arrows."
A flurry of pounding hooves and trundling wagons signaled that her orders had been heard. Neal steered Mage Whisper out of their way, to the side of the road, where he awaited his knight-mistress. She did not acknowledge his presence. Instead, Alanna focused on her spyglass, which blazed with purple fire in Neal's sight.
"No ships," he heard her say. She paused. "A trail going south through the forest…" She paused again, and when she spoke, he could practically hear the scowl in her voice: "…and then disappearing." Alanna lifted her eye from the spyglass and squinted down in the direction of the village. Evidently coming to some decision, she collapsed the glass and stowed it, then nudged Darkmoon. The stallion made his way carefully back up the slope to Neal and the road. Knight and squire started down the road again.
"When we get there," Alanna said quietly, "I want you to focus on getting the villagers onto the wagons. Help the guards clear a path for them and help them get back up to the castle. Fight only those who attack you or endanger the villagers. You'll get other chances for battle."
"Yes, my lady," Neal said.
"You're not disappointed?" his knight-mistress asked. Neal could not see her all that well, but he imagined her raising her eyebrows. "You wouldn't rather fight?"
"I am mature enough to recognize that my skills suit me for other things," Neal said, affecting loftiness. Alanna chuckled tightly.
"Good," she said. She took a breath, eyelids fluttering closed and then open again. She loosened her weapons in their sheaths. Neal saw her Gift fire up as well. "Eyes front, squire," she said. "Let's go."
In the village, guards and villagers had doused some of the flames and pulled down a part of the damaged stockade wall, making a gap through which they could guide villagers and animals to the safety of the wagons. The Swoop's archers mounted the remainder of the wall and picked their targets by firelight. Other guards rushed their horses through the gap in pursuit of the raiders. Alanna joined them, sword in one hand, the other blazing with violet Gift, alternately slicing and scorching as she led her fighters into the melee.
Neal dismounted and took his place near the wagons, helping children, elderly, and some animals climb onto them.
"Where's Mama?" one wild-eyed boy asked. "She was right behind me!"
"She's a hardy lass, and probably fighting," said one of the guards, a woman named Fionna, as she handed him the two chickens he had brought. "You'll see her when this is over. Now you be good and do as you're told." She helped Neal bolt the wagon's back panel. The guard driving the wagon flicked the reins, and it trundled away up the road to the keep.
"They're fleeing!" someone yelled.
"Drive them out past the boundaries!" Alanna yelled back, yanking her sword out of a raider's shoulder. As the ragged man flopped groaning onto the ground, the Lioness steered Darkmoon to the nearest stair. She dismounted and climbed to the wall. As if by some unspoken signal, two villagers joined her, both gathering magical fire in their hands.
"They've gone, milady!" A guard with a spyglass ran over to Alanna. "We've secured the perimeter!"
Alanna nodded. Neal saw her join hands with the other mages. Her lips moved, no doubt casting a spell, but he could not hear her over the roar of the still-burning buildings, the whinnies and cackles of animals, and the crying of children. He could, however, see the results of the magic: a ball of magical fire, blended from the colors of the three Gifts, appeared over the center of the village. Spokes of light shot out from it, each one anchoring in a patch of ground outside the village wall. The spaces between each spoke blazed for only a moment, and then the entire spell vanished, the domed magical barrier becoming invisible and vanishing into the night.
Now people moved to douse the buildings and retrieve what possessions could be salvaged. The children who remained in the village relaxed, just slightly, and set about shepherding their animals out of the village in a more orderly fashion.
Neal's knight-mistress approached him.
"Some people will stay, including the mages," Lady Alanna said. "We've some wounded, including the raiders. They'll set up a field hospital in the main village hall. When they send off the last wagon, clean up and report to the hospital."
"Yes, my lady," Neal said.
Two wagons later, Neal got directions to the well, where he passed his hand over the well mouth and muttered a few well-chosen High Gaulish words. The water flared green, indicating that it was safe. Neal used some to wash his face and hands. Then he headed over to the village hall, the building that normally served as the schoolhouse and meetinghouse.
Within the building, wounded villagers, soldiers, and raiders lay on pallets and stretchers, while others tended them. Neal founded his knight-mistress sitting at the far end of the hall, by the banked fire in the great hearth. The flames blazed purple; in their heart shimmered a vision of the baron in his study. Alanna had apparently just finished reporting about the raid.
"We don't know how they got past our wards," the baron was saying. "My guess is that they've a mage who took them down. Aly and Inga both took a look, and neither could see any trace of the mage barriers—like they weren't even there to begin with."
"Inga can see magic?" Neal blurted out. The baron gave a small chuckle.
"So they've got a mage," Alanna said grimly. "A good one, too, if he can take down my spells and scrub the place clean." She grimaced.
"The good news is that some of our people found their ships, seems like," the baron continued. "Three of 'em, anchored off Griffin Point. I had Thom scry a message to Legann. Imrah's sending us some ships and men so we can clean them out of the bay."
"Good," Alanna said. She paused. Then, "George," she said, "will you be needing any captives this time?"
"No," the baron said. He hesitated, just a little, then added, "Thom will be down there later to help you check the fief's perimeter for mage-marks. I'll be sending Aly and Inga too, to interrogate the captives you've already got. We'll see if we can't find where they came from, and send someone there to leave 'em a nice surprise."
The lightness of his tone made Neal shiver. Alanna grimaced as well, but she collected herself quickly too, as though used to hearing her husband make such chilling understatements (she probably was).
"We'll be here in the village hall, probably through the night," she told George. "If anything happens, I'll signal the usual way."
"Very well. We'll see this thing done, and these pirates cleared out, don't you worry, lass."
"I never worry, George."
The baron laughed.
"As if. Good night, lass. I love you."
"I love you." Alanna smiled. Then she slashed her hand through the vision. The baron's face vanished; the purple flames faded, leaving the slow-burning, perfectly normal fire in the hearth.
"I wasn't expecting them to find the pirates' ships so soon," Neal commented.
"George's people do fast work," Alanna replied tartly, grabbing the tankard of cider at her elbow and taking a deep gulp. "Besides, if they anchored at Griffin Point of all places, their goal isn't secrecy—only surprise. Hopefully, now that they've lost that, they'll leave us alone." She shrugged. "Probably not, though. They'll push their luck, and if we do as we ought, we'll round up the lot and ship them off to the king's justice." She stood and wiped her hands on her tunic. "Come, squire," she said. "We've work to do."
A/N: Re: Fionna and her fellow workaday female guards: I don't believe for a second that there were no girls in Alanna's fief who didn't want to be a fighter like their liege-lady. I doubt she would have had time to mentor each and every one of them, but she would have made sure that the people manning her fief's walls could work with women fighters. And George would have known about the girls, and he would have quietly helped them along their way, because he is just awesome like that.