/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Valdemar (07): By the Sword

The Price Of Command

Mercedes Lackey

This story is about Kerowyn, granddaughter to the sorceress Kethry. Kerowyn wanted to raise and train horses but that dream was shattered when her brother was injured and his fiancee was kidnapped. She was forced to find her grandmother and the SwordSworn Tarma and train in the ways of the Sword. After facing her foes, Kerowyn becomes an outsider in her own land. She then becomes bound by the magical sword Need and goes on to become to legendary captian of the mercenary company, the SkyBolts. She also becomes Chosen which transforms her title to Herald-Captian Kerowyn. Queen Selenay also find love in this book because of Kerowyn.

By The Sword

Mercedes Lackey

Book Three: The Price Of Command

Seventeen

Kero rubbed her eyes; they burned, though whether from the smoke from her dimming lantern, or from the late hour, she didn’t know and didn’t really care. “Maps,” she muttered under her breath, the irritation in her voice plain even to her ears. “Bloody maps. I hate maps. If I see one more tactical map or gashkana supply list, I’ll throw myself off a gods-be-damned cliff. Happily.”

The command tent was as hot as all of the nine hells combined, but the dead-still air outside was no better, and full of biting insects to boot. At least whatever Healer-apprentice Hovan had put in the lamp oil that made it smoke so badly was keeping the bugs out of the tent. Shadows danced a slow pavane against the parchment-colored walls as the lamp flame wavered.

She stared at the minute details and tiny, claw-track notations of her terrain-map until her eyes watered, and she still couldn’t see any better plan than the one she’d already made. She snarled at the blue line of the stream, which obstinately refused to shift its position to oblige her strategy, and slowly straightened in her chair.

Her neck and shoulders were tight and stiff. She ran a hand through hair that was damp at the roots from sweat, and she wished she’d brought Raslir, her orderly, along. One-armed he might be, but he had a way with muscles and a little bit of leather-oil....

But he was also old enough to be her grandfather, and the battlefield was no place for him. He might find himself tempted beyond endurance to engage in one little fray—and that would be the end of him.

The wine flask set just within her reach looked very inviting, with water forming little crystal beads along its sides, and the cot beyond the folding table beckoned as well. She hadn’t yet availed herself of either. She stretched, as Warrl had taught her; slow, and easy, a fiber at a time. A vertebra in her neck popped, and her right shoulder-joint, and some of the strain in her neck eased. Either I’m getting old, or the damp is getting to me. Maybe both.

The lamp set up a puff of smoke, and she waved it away, coughing, as she reached for the wine flask. And despite her earlier vow to throw herself off a cliff if she had to look at another list, she glanced at the tally sheet. And smiled. She could smile, still, before the battle, before she actually had to send anyone out on the lines, to kill and be killed. If only I never had to send them out to fight in anything but the kind of bloodless contests we had last year. Then I could be entirely content.

But a year like the last, where all they had to do was show themselves, was the exception rather than the usual, and she well knew it.

Still the tally sheet was impressive. Not bad, if I do say so myself. It had been ten years since she’d been made Captain, and there had been no serious complaints from any Skybolt or from their clients or the Guild in all that time. And from the beaten force that had come up from Seejay, tails between their legs, she had built the foundations for a specialist-Company that now tallied twice the number Lerryn had commanded.

And in many ways, it was four Companies, not one, each with its own pair of Lieutenants. For some reason that she could not fathom, shared command had always worked well for the Skybolts, though no one else could ever succeed with it. The largest group was the light cavalry; next came the horse-archers. Those two groups made up two-thirds of their forces. The remaining third was divided equally between the scouts and the true specialists.

Those specialists included messengers, on the fastest beasts Kero’s Shin’a’in cousins would sell her; experts in sabotage; and the nonfighters—two full Healers, and their four assistants, and three mages and their six apprentices. The chief of those mages, and the jewel Kero frequently gloated over, was White Winds Master-class mage Quenten, a mercurial, lean and incurably cheerful carrot-top sent as a Journeyman straight to the Skybolts by Kero’s uncle.

He will tell you that he wants (gods help him), adventure, the young mage’s letter of introduction had read. And for a moment, Kero had hesitated, knowing that a lust for “adventure” had been the death of plenty of mercenary recruits, and the disenchantment of plenty more. But then she had read on. Don’t mistake me, niece. He is as patient as even I could want, with a mind capable of dealing with the tedious as well as the exciting. What he calls “adventure,” I would call challenge. There isn’t enough outside of the magics of warfare to sharpen his skills as quickly as they can be sharpened. So although we are a school of peace, I send Quenten to you, knowing you will both be the wealthier for the association.

So it had proved; she’d never known her uncle to be mistaken, so she took the young man on, and rapidly discovered what a prize she had been gifted with. He had, over the course of the years, managed to convince Need to extend her power of protection-against-magics to cover all of the Company. When she asked him how he had done it, he grinned triumphantly. “I did something to make it look as if you were the Company and the Company was you,” he said, a light in his eyes that Kero had responded to with a smile of her own.

And if Need was aware that her magic had been tampered with, she hadn’t bothered to do anything about it. Now the Skybolts were in the unique position of having mages whose concentrated efforts could be directed to things other than defensive magics. No one else could enjoy that kind of advantage. It made their three mages capable of doing the work of six. Only the armies of nations could afford that many mages deployed with a group the size of a Company. Most Companies couldn’t even afford to field more than one mage, and the Skybolts used that advantage mercilessly.

After all these years, Kero still wasn’t certain of how aware the sword was of the things that went on around her. In her first years as Captain, it had still occasionally tried to wrest control away from her, yet she had the impression that the blade wasn’t really “awake” when it made these periodic trials. She sometimes thought that it reacted to her self-assertion the way a sleeping person would to an irritating insect.

When was the last time it tested me? She pondered, taking a long slow sip from the wine flask. The water slicking the sides of the pewter flask cooled the palm of her hand, and the chill liquid slid down her throat and eased the tickle in the back of it. She closed her eyes and savored it. About five years ago. And I know I got the feeling that it wasn’t going to try again. Gods, I hope not. Not now, anyway. Damned thing is likely to decide for the enemy!

That was because the current campaign was against her old enemies, the Karsites. And that recollection made her smile with bitter pleasure. She had quite a debt to collect from the Karsites, and this was the first time in ten years that she’d had a chance to do so. The Skybolts were fighting beside the Rethwellan regular army on behalf of the male monarch of Rethwellan, against the self-styled female Prophet of Vkandis, and that could bring trouble from Need, if the sword noticed. Kero recalled only too well the time the blade had refused to fight against one of the Karsite priestesses. She didn’t relish the idea of it turning on her again.

“If there’s one thing I can’t stand besides maps,” she muttered to herself, “It’s a holy war. These religious fanatics are so damned—unprofessional.

Messy, that was what it was. Seems like the moment religion enters into a question, people’s brains turn to mush. Messy wars and messy thinking. Messy thinking causing messy wars.

The Karsites had been causing trouble since long before the disaster in Menmellith, and had continued to do so afterward. But this was the first time that the followers of the Sunlord had ever actually moved openly against Rethwellan. The so-called Prophet, claiming to be the original Prophet, reborn into a female body to prove the Oneness of the deity, had managed to raise a good-sized army on the strength of her charisma and the “miracles” she performed. She had moved that army into the province south of Menmellith during the winter, while travel was hard and news moved slowly. By spring she had taken it over and sealed it off.

The King of Rethwellan made no secret of the fact that he suspected collusion on the part of the provincial governor. Kero was fairly sure, from her sources of information within the Guild, that he was right. The governor was an old man, a man who had suffered through a series of serious illnesses. Kero had seen his kind before, and sniffed cynically as she thought about him. Odds are he’s figured out that he’s as mortal as the rest of us for the first time in his life, and he’s been looking frantically for someone, anyone, who’ll promise him a quick and easy route into some kind of paradise when he kicks over the traces.

She sipped again at her wine; carefully, it wouldn’t do to have a head in the morning. But wine was the only thing that kept the dreams away.

She resolutely turned her mind away from those dreams. Not because they were unpleasant; quite the contrary, they were too pleasant. Seductively so. The trouble was, they featured Eldan, and he was a subject she was determined to forget.

He can’t have forgiven me for sending the Guild up to collect that ransom instead of going myself. Either that, or else by now he’s completely forgotten me, assuming he’s even still alive.

She’d dreamed of him often ... far too often for her own comfort. The dreams had come frequently, in those first years, when she was unsure in her command, and unhappy—and lonely. Sometimes in those night-visions they hadn’t done more than talk, and she’d come away with answers she desperately needed.

But sometimes, especially lately, they’d done a great deal more than talk. Since she was half-convinced that her dreams were simply fantasies conjured up by her sleeping mind, those dreams were a cruel reflection on her current state of isolation, and while those incorporeal rolls in the hay might be what she wanted, they didn’t make waking up any easier of a morning.

She told herself, over and over, that her self-imposed loneliness didn’t matter. Look at what she had built in the past few years! Most male mercenaries never made Captain, most male Captains had not achieved their rank until well into their late forties. That it had cost her little more than hard work, sleepless nights, and a lack of amorous company was hardly something to complain about. And she knew very well the reasons why she needed to keep herself free from amorous entanglements. Tarma had explained that aspect of command to her in intimate detail, with plenty of examples of what not to do.

A Captain of a Company did not take lovers from the ranks; that was the quickest way in the world for suspicions of favoritism to start—and that let in factionalism and divisiveness. A Captain always remained the Captain, even among old friends.

The hired charms of the camp-followers were not at all to Kero’s taste—and her peers either regarded her (rightly) as possible competition, or at best, a rival and equal power. But there was more to it than that, though most of Kero’s peers would have laughed (if uneasily) if she’d told them her chief reason. It was asking for trouble to take someone into your bed with whom you might well find yourself crossing swords one day. You never know who’s going to be hired to come up against you. Having someone on the other side who had that kind of knowledge of me—in no way am I going to take that kind of risk.

She put the flask down, and traced little patterns on the table with her wet forefinger. That’s the one thing Tarma never warned me about, she reflected, waving away another puff of sharp-scented smoke. She never told me that rank and holding yourself apart makes for lonely nights. She always had Grandmother for friendship—and she never wanted a lover thanks to that vow of hers. Gods know being Swordsworn would be easier than overhearing some of what goes on in the tents after dark. She could ignore it; I try, but can’t always.

Being Captain didn’t necessarily mean an empty bed, even if you didn’t much care for whores. More than a few of her fellow Captains went through wenches the way a ram goes through a flock of ewes. They tended to pick up country girls bedazzled by the glamour and danger, and abandon them when their lovers got a little too possessive. Kero had never been able to bring herself to just lure off some wide-eyed farmboy as if she was some kind of mate-devouring spider. And besides, more than half the men she met these days seemed overwhelmed by her.

I’ve been awfully circumspect, she thought, with perverse pride, looking back over the years. There were three—no, four minstrels. That worked. All four of them were too cocky to be intimidated by me. The only problem was, while the Skybolts make good song-fodder, they don’t offer much more to a rhymester. So I lost all four of them to soft jobs in noble houses. There were a couple of merchants, but that didn’t last past a couple of nights. And there was that Healer. But every time I went out he was in knots by the time I came back, figuring it would be me that got carried in for him to fix—that alliance was doomed from the start. It’s been cold beds for the past two years now. Unlike Daren.

She had to smile at that, because this campaign against the Karsites had brought her back into personal contact with “the boy,” as she had continued to think of him. Meeting him again had forced her to change that memory, drastically. He’d matured; not his face, which was still boyishly handsome, if a bit more weathered, but in the expression around the eyes and mouth. Not such a boy anymore—

They hadn’t renewed their affair; it would have been a stupid thing to do in the middle of a war for one thing, and for another, while they found themselves better friends than ever, they discovered at that first meeting that they were no longer attracted to each other.

Daren had achieved his dream of becoming the Lord Martial of his brother’s standing army. One thing about him had not changed; he still worshiped his older brother. Kero toyed with the flask, holding its cool surface to her forehead for a moment, and wondered if the King knew what a completely and selflessly loyal treasure he had in his sibling. She hoped so; over the past several years she’d learned that loyalty in the high ranks was hardly something to be taken for granted.

Daren was as randy as Kero was discreet. He hopped in and out of beds as casually as any of the Captains she knew, and there’d even been rumors of betrothal once or twice, but nothing ever came of it.

We’re too much alike. She smiled, thinking about how even their battle plans still meshed after all these years. Far too much alike to ever be lovers again. Just as well, I suppose. He just makes me feel too sisterly to want him.

“Captain?” Her aide-de-camp stuck his head just inside the flap of the tent. “Shallan and Geyr to see you.”

Gods. I forgot I sent for them. Must be the heat. She stifled a yawn. “Good; send them in.” She made certain two special bits of cloth were at hand, and fished one particular map out of the pile and smoothed it out on the table.

“Captain?” Shallan said doubtfully.

“Come on in,” she replied easily. “No formality.”

Her old friend—whom Kero wanted to make Lieutenant of the specialist corps—slipped inside, followed by the man Kero intended to make Shallan’s co-commander.

A year ago Shallan had lost Relli to a chance arrow, and for a while Kero was afraid they were going to lose the surviving partner to melancholy or madness. But given the responsibility of command of a squad, Shallan had made a remarkable recovery. She and Geyr had never actually worked together; Kero had a shrewd notion they’d do fine, not the least because they were both she’chorne. They looked like total opposites; Shallan still a golden blonde as ageless as the mysterious Hawkbrothers, and Geyr, a native of some land so far to the south Kero had never even heard of it before he told her his story, a true black man from his hair to his feet.

The two of them stood a little awkwardly in front of her table. She stayed seated; even though she had said “no formality,” she intended to keep that much distance between them. They were friends, yes—but they had to be Captain and underling first, even now.

“How’s Bel?” Shallan asked immediately. The scout-lieutenant had been taken victim, not by wounds, but by the killer that fighters feared more than battle—fever. That same fever had already struck down one of the co-commanders of the horse-archers.

“I had to send him back, like Dende,” Kero replied regretfully. “The Healers think he’ll be all right, but only if we get him up into the mountains where it’s cool and dry. That’s why I wanted you here. I want to buck Losh over to command the horse-archers, and put you two in charge of the specialists.”

Shallan’s mouth fell open; Geyr looked as if he thought he hadn’t rightly understood what she’d said. He scratched his curly head, as Shallan took a deep breath.

She waited for them to recover; Shallan managed first. “But—but—”

“You’ve earned it, both of you,” she said. “I’ve been shorthanded with the horse-archers, and that’s really where Losh belongs. The troops know you, and you’ve both been handling squads up until now with no complaints. I think you’ll do fine.”

“What about the dogs?” Geyr asked slowly, the whites of his eyes shining starkly against his dark skin. “Do I keep on running the dogs?”

“Damn bet you do,” Kero told him. “The only difference this command will make in that, is that now you and I will be the only ones deciding when to run them, and when it’s too dangerous. I know you and Losh didn’t always agree on that.”

Geyr grinned, showing the gold patterns inlaid in his front teeth. “Khala il rede he, Ishuna,” he replied, in the tongue that he alone knew. “Blessings follow and luck precede you, liege-lady. I and mine thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, with a little weary amusement. She had yet to get Geyr to understand the difference between Mercenary’s Oath and swearing fealty. Maybe in his land there were no differences. She turned to Shallan. “What have you to say, Lieutenant?”

“I—” Shallan swallowed hard and tried again, her eyes dilated wide in the lamplight. “Thank you, Captain. I accept.” She glanced out of the corner of her eye at Geyr, and Kero saw her face grow thoughtful, her expression speculative. “This isn’t an accident, is it?” she stated, rather than asked. “You picked us both because we’re she’chorne, and we’ll be able to work together without sex getting into it.”

Kero chuckled. “One reason out of many, yes,” she admitted. “And by seeing that, I think I can safely say you’re starting to think like an officer. Good.” She rolled up the map in front of her, and passed it across the table to them. Shallan took it. “This is the initial battle line for tomorrow. I want you two to study it, and come back to me if you have any changes you’d like to make. Otherwise, that is all I have to say to you for now.”

She picked up the two Lieutenant’s badges that had been hidden under the pile of papers at the side of the table. Both her new officers took them gravely, saluted her with clean precision, and took themselves out. The tent flapped closed behind them, letting in a breeze that was a little fresher, but no cooler. It’s going to be impossible to sleep tonight without some help. Kero sighed, reached once more for the wine flask, and downed the rest of the contents in a single gulp. Better risk a bit of a headache than no sleep.

She peeled herself out of her clothing before the wine could fuddle her, and left the uniform in a heap for her aide to pick up, falling onto the cot as a flush of light-headedness overtook her.

Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have a lover, she thought muzzily as she allowed sleep to take her. Between battle plans and supply lists, I’d never see him unless he disguised himself as a gods-be-damned map.

“What are you trying to do, work yourself into an early grave?” Eldan crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her. “Or are you planning on drinking yourself there first?”

Kero matched him, glare for glare, anger and shame burning her cheeks. She knew very well she’d been hitting the wine flask a little too hard, and she didn’t like being reminded of the fact. “I don’t drink that much. Just enough to put me out for the night. And you ought to be thanking me for working this hard—it’s the enemies of your precious Valdemar I’m up against this time. “

Inside she was quaking, a cold fear clutching at her heart. She’d had her wine. She shouldn’t be having this dream. Drinking had always kept the dreams away before

“Oh, you’re up against one faction of Karse, all right. One minor faction of Karse—and meanwhile the real power in Karse is free to—”

What? Free to what? Nobody’s made a move in Karse since the Prophet started her power play. So what’s the big problem here?” She turned her back on him, and spoke to the vague, gray mist that always surrounded them in her dreams, hoping he wouldn’t see how her shoulders were shaking. She wasn’t sure of anything. She was terrified he’d touch her—and she wanted him to touch her, so badly, so very badly....

“You know what I think?” she said before he could form a reply. “I think the big problem is that I’m fighting for money. That just sticks in your throat, doesn’t it? And it sticks in your throat that I’m good at it, that I could probably teach your people a trick or two, that—”

A hand touched her shoulder, and the words froze in her throat. “Kero—” he said, humbly. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—I worry about you. You do work too hard. “

“I don’t have much of a choice, “ she reminded him tartly, without turning around. She was afraid if she did, she’d never be able to stay under control. “There are people depending on me—and you know what’s really bothering you. It’s that I do this for money.”

Eldan stepped slowly and soundlessly around her, so that he was looking into her eyes. She averted hers, looking down at her feet. This is only a dream, she kept telling herself. It doesn’t mean anything.

“That does bother me,” he said earnestly. “I think it’s wrong. There are other things you could be fighting for. You could be killed, and is money worth dying for? Honor—”

That word again. That stupid, suicidal word. It made her cheeks flame, this time with unmingled anger. “Honor won’t put food on my troopers’ table, or pay in their pockets, “ she snapped. “Honor won’t pay for much of anything. It’s all very well to prate about honor, when you’re on a first-name basis with a Queen, but my people rely on me to see that they get the means to live!”

“But—” he began.

“More stupid wars have been fought over honor than I care to think about,” she continued inexorably, raising her eyes just enough to stare angrily at the middle of his chest. “Seems to me that honor is a word that gets used to cover a lot of other things. Things like greed and ambition, hatred, and bigotry. It’s honorable to attack someone who doesn’t believe in the same things you do. It’s honorable to fight someone over a strip of land you covet. It’s honorable—”

She looked up at his uncomprehending face, and threw her hands up in the air. “I don’t know why I bother! At least I’m honest about my killing. I do it for money. I try to pick the side that was attacked, not the attackers. Most of the rest of the world wages war to support one lie or another—”

“Not here, “ he said, softly. “Not us. “

She would have rather he argued with her. She would much rather he’d shouted. Instead, this hurt expression—the look in his eyes, pleading with her to believe him.

“I only know what I’ve seen,” she said gruffly. “And what I’ve seen says that most of what people call ‘honor’ is no more than self-deception. Maybe you people in Valdemar are different.”

“We are, “he said. “Please, Kero, you know me—you know what I’m like. You’ve been inside my mind—”

“Right,” she interrupted hastily. “All right, you are different. Maybe all you Heralds are. That doesn’t make what I do any less valid. The rest of the world isn’t like you. And if there are going to be people out there making war on other people, don’t you think it’s a good idea for some of those people to at least follow a code of ethics? Not ‘honor,’ but something you can pin down and be sure of, something with the same rules for everybody. That’s what we’re doing. And if we do it for money, so be it. At least someone is doing it at all.”

She looked back up, to see he was smiling, ruefully. “You have a point,” he said, with a sigh. “Kero, that wasn’t why I came here—”

Before she knew what she was doing, she had responded to that smile, to the invitation in his eyes, and was locked in a mutual embrace with him.

Part of her was in terror. This was real—too real. Eldan’s arms felt too solid; his body too warm against hers. I’m going crazy, I must be! Being alone—

But the rest of her welcomed his embrace, the warmth of his lips on her forehead. The only intimate human touch she had—Even if it wasn’t real.

“I didn’t want to argue with you, “ he said in her ear. “I am worried about you. You’re trying to do too much. You take to much on yourself. And you bottle up your own feelings, never let anything out. You’re going to destroy yourself this way—you can’t be everything to everyone. “

“I thought you said you didn’t come here to argue with me,” she heard herself saying. “Keep that up and you’ll start another one.”

“Oh, Kero,” he shook his head, and she looked up into his eyes. “Kero, what am I going to do with you?”

“You might try—”

He stopped the words with a kiss, a kiss that led to more kisses, and then to something more intimate than mere kisses

Hands warm on skin, illusory clothing vanishing as they touched each other in wonder and pleasure and joy—

“Blessed Agnira!”

Kero woke up with a start, and the moment she was actually awake, she began to shake with terror.

The wine hadn’t worked. The dreams were back, more vivid than ever, and the wine hadn’t helped. This one-it had been real. Too real, too close to home. Part of her had wanted it, that was the worst thing; part of her had welcomed not only the dream, but the fantasy lovemaking.

She flung off the light blanket, and sat up on the edge of the cot, shaking. I’m going mad. I’m truly going mad. It’s all been too much for me.

Easy to believe she was going mad, Easier than to believe that she had created the dream because she missed Eldan, and wanted him so much....

Before she realized it, tears began to burn her eyes, and her throat closed. She buried her face in her hands.

It wasn’t a mistake. It never could have worked. We

Oh, gods. Oh, Eldan—

Seizing the flask of water that stood beside her bed, she drank it dry, hoping to drown the tears. Instead, they only fell faster, and she was helpless to stop them.

As helpless as she was to stop the loneliness that was the price of command....

She seized her tunic, groped for her cloak, and went out into the cool night, hoping to pace away the doubts, the fears, and most of all, the memories.

This place had been pretty, before warfare had scarred the land; low, rolling hills covered in grass, tree lines that marked streambeds and river bottoms. Now the grass was trampled, and dust rose above the scuffling armies like smoke. Sun burned down onto the battlefield like Vkandis’ own curse. Kero stood beside her old friend, magnificent in his scarlet cloak of the Lord Martial, and squinted into the distance. Beside her, Geyr stood as impassively as a black stone statue. She could not imagine how he was able to stand there and look so cool and unmoved.

Maybe he doesn’t feel the heat. Maybe this isn’t that bad to him. If that’s so, I don’t think I ever want to visit his homeland.

Up until now, the Prophet had held several groups of infantry in reserve. It looked as if those last groups on the Prophet’s side had finally joined the battle. “This is it,” Daren said quietly, confirming her observation. “The Prophet just committed herself entirely. And so have I. If we don’t win this one—”

“You’ll lose the war, the province, and a hell of a lot of face,” Kero finished for him, wiping her sweaty face with a rag she kept tucked into her belt. “But that won’t be the worst of it. If you lose, she’ll have a power base, and you’ll have to fight her every time you turn around, or you’ll lose the country to her a furlong at a time.” She scowled, though not at him, but rather at the thought.

Beside them, a handsome—and very young—noble assigned as Daren’s aide looked puzzled. “Why is that, m’lord?” he asked. “Won’t she be content with what she’s won?”

Daren snorted, and wiped his own face with a rag no cleaner or fancier than Kero’s. “Not too damned likely. If we don’t eliminate her now, it’ll prove that her god really is on her side, and we’ll be fighting religious fanatics all over Rethwellan. This kind of ‘holy war’ is like gangrene—if you don’t get rid of it, it poisons the whole body. If we can’t burn it out, it’ll kill us all.”

The young aide gave Kero a sideways glance, as if asking her to confirm what Daren had said. She’d already discovered that she had a formidable reputation among Daren’s highborn young fire-eaters; she was using that reputation to reinforce his authority. There could only be one Commander of all the forces, just as there could only be one Captain of a Company.

“You’re dead right about that, my lord,” she said, answering the boy’s glance without speaking to him directly. “I can’t think of anything worse than fighting a religious fanatic, especially one that’s sure he’s going to some kind of paradise if he dies for his god. That kind’ll charge your lines, run right up your blade, and kill himself in order to take your head off.”

She peered through the sun, the heat-haze, and the dust, and cursed again under her breath, resolutely shaking off the weariness that was the legacy of her sleepless night. It was pretty obvious that both armies had stalemated each other. Her people were out of it, for now; they’d done what they could early this morning, and now they were behind the lines, taking what rest they could, and awaiting further orders. And with only a handful of dead and twice that wounded. New recruits, mostly, and no one I really knew well. Gods pass their souls.

For once, she wasn’t having to prove herself and her Company to anyone. Daren had made her pretty well autonomous; he trusted her judgment and her battle sense. He knew she had twice the actual combat experience he or any of his commanders had. He knew that if she saw an opening where the Skybolts could do some good, she’d send them. That was more trust than Kero had gotten from any other Commander, and she wondered if he treated all mercenary Captains like that, or only her, because he knew her.

Right now, the action was all afoot, and hand-to-hand, and there was no place for a mounted force to go—except for the heavy cavalry, who kept trying to plow through the enemy lines without getting trapped behind them.

A glitter of sun-reflection caught her eye and she grimaced at the shrine of Vkandis anchoring the left flank. The damn thing is the rallying point for the entire line, she thought angrily. Every time those idiots haul it forward a couple of paces, the whole left flank follows it.

It was pulled on clumsy rollers by nearly a hundred of the most manic of the Prophet’s followers. Every day now they’d added captured booty and ornamentation to it, making it more impressive, more elaborate, and doubtless making it heavier as well. The latest trick had been to gild the roof; that was what had caught her eye, the shine of sun on gold-leaf. She wondered how many poor peasants had been starved to pay for the ornamentation.

Another blur of motion caught her eye, and one more familiar—the yellow-gray streak that marked the passage of one of Geyr’s messenger-dogs behind the lines. The poor beasts looked like nothing more than bags of bones, but they moved like lightning incarnate. Geyr had brought them with him when he’d joined; Kero gathered that in his country, men raced the pups the way the folk of the north raced horses. He had the notion that they could be used as messengers, but only Kero had been willing to take a chance on his idea. They were amazingly intelligent for their size; once they knew that a particular human carried a horn full of lumps of suet or balls of butter on his belt, they had that person’s name and scent locked in memory for all time, and anyone could put a message in their collars and tell them to find that person, and they would. No matter what stood in their way. The scrawny little beasts would literally race through fire for a bit of fat. Geyr had once said, laughingly, that if you buttered a brick, they’d eat it.

The little dog evaded people and horses with equal ease, then stopped dead for a moment. Before Kero had a chance to ask Geyr what was wrong with it, the beast was off again, this time streaking in their direction, so low to the ground that his chest must be scraping the earth.

“Meant for me, which means you, Captain,” Geyr muttered, as the dog dove fearlessly among the hooves of the Skybolts’ horses and out the other side of the picket lines. She recognized it now by the scarlet collar—it was the one they’d sent with Shallan’s scouts.

It flung itself through the air, landing in Geyr’s waiting arms; panting, but not with exhaustion. This punishing heat was no more bother to Geyr’s dogs than to Geyr himself.

The black Lieutenant gave the little animal his reward, and passed the message cylinder from its collar to Kero. She opened it, and scanned the short scrawl with a sinking heart. Shallan had seen something important, and had dutifully reported it. And Daren would most certainly see the way to break the deadlock that Shallan’s observation opened up. She knew how he thought, and it was the only logical course of action—only now it was no longer counters on a sand-table they put at risk, it was her men’s and women’s lives. But something had to be done, or they’d risk more Karsite intervention before they had neutralized the Prophet.

Even it meant her people would die.

And if by some chance he doesn’t see it, I’ll have to point it out to him. Gods have mercy....

Her throat closed. She passed him the note without comment; his brows creased as he puzzled out Shallan’s crabbed and half-literate printing. Then he looked up into her eyes.

“She says there’s a way to get to the shrine, coming up the bed of the stream.”

Kero nodded, and cleared her throat discreetly. They know what they’re getting paid to do. “But if you sent foot, they’d see you coming in time and reinforce the lines there.”

“But if I sent horse-archers with fire-arrows ... they’d move too quickly for the Prophet’s commanders to see what we were up to and maneuver foot into place. And if the shrine goes, the whole army will panic.”

Kero closed her eyes for a moment to think. There might yet be a way to spare her people. “We’ve tried this before,” she reminded him. “Getting the shrine was one of the first things we thought of, and we couldn’t even touch it.”

“But not using the horse-archers,” he retorted. “We didn’t have a clear shot at it with the archers before; we tried for it using magic. It’s shielded against magic, but I’d be willing to bet it isn’t shielded against plain old fire-arrows. It wasn’t shielded against that ballista shot that took off a corner of the roof. If it can be hit, it can be burned.”

Dear gods, there’s no hope for it. Either they go in, impossible odds and all, or we lose. Her stomach knotted, and her throat ached with sorrow for the slaughter to come. Bad enough to send her people into an ordinary battle, where the odds were in their favor because of their strike-and-run tactics. But this—

She swallowed, stared off into the distance, and tried to think of them as markers on a table. Running the tactic straight—she’d lose about half of those that went in.

But she had the only force that could get in, get the job done, and get out.

It’s a suicide mission! half of her cried in agony. It’s necessary, said the other half, coldly, logically. She took a deep breath, lowered her eyes, and looked straight back into Daren’s. And saw that he didn’t like the odds any better than she did. He hated the cost of this as much as she. She saw the same pain she felt in the back of his eyes, and it steadied her.

“All right,” she said. “Give me time to set this up, right to requisition what I might need from your quartermaster, then get us an escort in and out. Leave the rest to us. Geyr, on me.”

She turned on her heel, and walked off without another word. How can I even up the odds? There has to be a way. The black man whistled to his dog and followed after her, as she strode down toward the picket line, and the rows of horses drowsing in the sun, oblivious to the battle beyond.

“Get me Quenten,” she called as she reached the lines and lounging fighters jumped to their feet. She scanned them, looking for the bright white of Lieutenants’ badges. She spotted one, and providentially, it was exactly the person she needed most. “Losh,” she ordered, not slacking her pace in the least, as she kept straight on through the lines. “Get the horse-archers to the Healers’ tent. The rest of you, at ease.”

A third of the Skybolts went back to their scraps of shade, veterans enough to know and follow the maxim that a fighter rests whenever he can. The rest left their beasts in the care of friends and followed after her to the Healers’ tent.

Quenten turned up just as she got there, popping out of the Healers’ tent so suddenly he seemed to appear out of the air, like one of his illusions. And seeing that started an idea in the back of her mind.

She left it there to simmer a while, as she gathered her troops around her, and explained the mission. The horse-archers sat or stood, each according to his nature, but all with one thing in common; absolute attention and complete silence.

As Kero drew a rough map in the dust and laid out the plan, she couldn’t help but notice how appallingly young the gathered faces were. One and all, they were veterans, yes, without a doubt—but none was over the age of twenty-five. Most were under twenty. Young enough to believe in their own immortality and invulnerability. Too young to really understand what bad odds mean, or really care if they do know. Each and every one of them thinks he can beat the odds and the omens, however unfavorable. She felt sickened; as if she was somehow betraying them.

As she completed her explanation, the glimmering of an idea burst into full flower, and she turned to Quenten. “You’re in on this because I want you to do something to make them harder to hit—maybe make them harder to see,” she told him. “They’re already going to be moving targets; I want you to make it so hard for the enemy to look at them that he has nothing to aim at.”

He scratched his peeling nose thoughtfully; like most redheads, he sunburned at the mercst hint of summer. That was probably why he had been in the Healers’ tent; either sensibly avoiding injury or getting his burns seen to. “I can’t make weapons bounce off ’em, Captain,” he replied uneasily. “I think I know what you’re thinking of, and I’m not as good as your grandmother was, I haven’t got the power to pull that spell that makes ’em look like they’re a little off where they really are. And I sure’s hell can’t make ’em invisible.”

“That wasn’t what I had in mind,” she said, impatient with herself for not knowing how to explain clearly what she did want. “You’re damned good at illusion. There’s a lot of sun out there today—hellfires, the way it comes off that shrine roof, you get spots in front of your eyes trying to look at it. What about if I get real shiny armor issued for everybody—can you do something to make it brighter?”

Quenten brightened immediately. “Now that I can do!” he enthused. “I can double the light reflecting off of it, at least—maybe triple it.”

“Good man.” She slapped him lightly on the back, and he grinned like a boy. “You work on that while I see what I can do about armor.”

In the end, she scrounged shiny breastplates and helmets from Daren’s stores for all of her horse-archers, and Geyr had the clever notion of fixing mirrors to the top of every nose-guard and the nose-band of every bridle. Quenten worked a miracle in the short time she gave him; not only did he concoct the spell, creating it literally from nothing but the light-gathering cantrip mages used when working in a dimly-lit area, but he managed to cast it so that the Skybolts themselves were immune to its effects.

“That’s the best I can do,” he said, finally. Kero watched the effect on some of Daren’s troopers; they winced, and squinted, and eventually had to look away. She nodded; it wasn’t full protection, but it would tilt the odds farther in their favor.

Now all they have to worry about are the arrows shot at them unaimed. And hope none of the Prophets’ officers get the bright idea of just letting fly en masse.

“Quenten, you’ve outstripped what your training says you should be able to do,” she told him honestly, and gratefully, mopping her neck with her rag. “You’ve managed a brand new spell in less than a candlemark. I think my uncle would salute you himself.”

Quenten glowed, and not just from his sunburn. Kero turned to one of the junior mages, a grave, colorless girl whose name she could never remember.

Jana. That’s it.

“Jana, is the way still open to the shrine?”

Jana’s eyes got the unfocused look she wore when she was using her powers to see at a distance. “Yes,” she said, in a voice as flat and colorless as the rest of her. “As open as it’s ever going to be.”

Kero looked over Jana’s head at the rest of the horse-archers. “The plan is simple enough. You with the fire-arrows, ride in the middle. The rest of you try to keep them covered and yourselves alive. Get in, and get out. We’re not in this for glory or revenge, so don’t take stupid chances. Got that?”

The fighters grunted, or nodded, or otherwise showed their assent. At least the foolhardy were weeded out early, she thought, watching them mount up with an aching heart and an impassive face. If they wanted out of this life, they could get out.

She saluted them as they wheeled their mounts and took off at a gallop. Losh was leading them in a feint toward the center of the left flank. Only at the last moment would they turn and rush up the watercourse. By then they would be out of unaided sight, and she would not have to watch them fall and die....

They’d do this if I wasn’t Captain, she told herself for the hundredth time. This is what they’re good at; it’s their choice. And if I didn’t lead them, someone else would. Someone with less care for them, maybe, or less imagination.

And as always, as she waited for the survivors to return, the words comforted her not at all.

Eighteen

Daren finished the last of his dispatches, and slumped at the folding desk in his tent, very glad that he’d brought an aide who knew massage. Right now, he was torn equally between a tired elation and a sense of deep and guilty loss.

When the horse-archers had moved in, the shrine went up in a glorious gout of flames, just as he and Kerowyn had planned. And exactly as he and Kero had known it would, the Prophet’s line collapsed in a panic. The only thing they had not predicted was how total the rout would be. But now that he thought about it, the reaction only made sense—Vkandis Sunlord was a god of the sun—hence, fire—and when his own shrine went up in flames, it must have seemed to the Prophet’s followers that the god himself had turned against them.

After that it had been so easy to defeat them that an army of raw recruits could have handled the job. The worst casualties were from men who had gotten between the fleeing Karsites and the Eastern border.

He’d heard that Kerowyn’s people got in and out with about a twenty-five percent loss, which was excellent for such a risky undertaking.

Excellent—except that these aren’t just numbers we’re talking about, or the counters we used to plan strategy with. Those numbers represented people. Kero’s people. Fighters that she’s recruited and trained with, and promised to lead intelligently. He stared at the papers on his desk without really seeing them, knowing how she must be feeling. It wasn’t quite so bad for him, now that he was Lord Martial of the entire army. He didn’t, couldn’t know every man in his forces the way Kero knew every fighter in hers. But he remembered very well how it had felt to lose even one man, back when his commands were smaller.

He stood abruptly. I’ll go see her. It helped me to have old Lord Vaul to unburden myself on. Maybe I can do the same for her. I’m supposed to see if she’s willing to come talk to my brother, anyway. And I can bring her horse-archers a bonus at the same time; gods know they’ve earned it. My coffers are plump enough, I can afford it. “Binn!” he said, not quite shouting, but loud enough for his orderly to hear. The grizzled veteran of a dozen tiny wars slid out of the shadows at the back of the tent, coming from behind the screen that kept his sleeping area private.

The man saluted smartly. “Sir,” he said, and waited for orders. They were not long in coming.

“Saddle my palfrey, and get me—hmm—two gold per head for those horse-archers Captain Kerowyn sent in.” The orderly nodded, and saluted again. “Sir, general funds, or your private coffer?”

“Private, Binn. This is between me and the Captain. If my brother decides on an extra bonus, that’ll be a Crown decision.”

“Sir. Begging the Lord Martial’s pardon, but—they deserve it. Don’t generally see mercs with that kind of guts.” The man’s face remained expressionless, but Daren fancied he caught a gleam of admiration in his eyes. That in itself was a bit of a surprise. Binn seldom unbent enough to praise anyone, and never a mercenary, not to Daren’s recollection.

“No pardon needed. As it happens, I agree with you.” He straightened his papers, and locked them away in the desk, as the orderly moved off briskly to see to his orders.

He mounted up and rode off as the first torches were lit along the rows of tents. He had left his scarlet cloak back in the tent, so there was nothing to distinguish him from any other mounted officer, and the men paid him no particular heed as they went about their business.

The dead had been collected and burned; the wounded were treated and would either live or die. The survivors tended to themselves, now—either celebrating or mourning. Mostly celebrating; even those who mourned could be coaxed into forgetting their losses for an hour or two over the strong distilled wine he had ordered distributed. They’d have wicked heads in the morning, those who were foolish enough to overindulge, but that was all right. If their heads ached enough, it would distract them from the aches of wounds, bruises, and hearts.

He passed over the invisible dividing line between the camp of the army and that of the mercenaries, and was, as ever, impressed by the discipline that still held there, victory or no. Kero’s people still had sentries posted, and he was challenged three times before he reached the camp itself. The Skybolts had lanterns instead of torches, an innovation he noted and made up his mind to copy. Torches were useless in a rainstorm—lanterns could be used regardless of the weather. And lanterns, once set, didn’t need the kind of watching torches did. It was just the kind of detail that set the Skybolts apart from the average mercenary Company.

By the time he reached the actual bounds of the camp itself, word of his coming and who he was had somehow, in that mysterious way known only to soldiers, preceded him. Since he was not in “uniform,” he was hailed only as “m’lord Daren”—but it was obvious from the covert looks at his bulging saddlebag and the grins of satisfaction (or envy, from those who were not archers), that these men knew of his penchant for delivering bonuses, and knew who those bonuses were due.

He asked after Kerowyn, and was directed to the command tent. All about him were the sounds of the same kind of celebration as back in his own camp, but more subdued, and there were fewer bonfires, and nothing like some of the wildness he’d left back there.

He dismounted at Kero’s tent and handed the reins of his horse to one of the two sentries posted there, taking the saddlebag with him. When he pushed back the flap, and looked inside, Kero was bent over a folding table identical to his own, going over lists. The lantern beside her seemed unusually smoky, and the pungent odor it emitted made him sneeze. She looked up, smiled wanly, and nodded at a stool beside the table before going back to her task. Her eyes were dark-rimmed, and red; her cheekbones starkly prominent.

Dear gods, she looks like hell. Worse than I expected.

He got a good look at those lists before he sat down; lists of names, and he had a feeling that they were the lists of the dead. He had always left that task till last, and he didn’t think she’d be any different.

She was writing little notations after each name; most looked like other names, which made him think she was probably noting who inherited the dead fighter’s possessions. Before a very few of those names, she made a little mark—

Those must be the ones with relatives, the ones she has to write the letter for. He craned his neck a little, shamelessly curious. That was the single task he had hated the most. Still did hate, since he still had to write letters for the families of his officers, from Lieutenant upward.

There don’t seem to be a lot of those. He grimaced a little. Dear gods. What a sad life they must lead, that so many of them live and die with no one to mourn their loss except their fellows....

Kero sighed, and reached for a scrap of cloth to clean her pen. “Well, that’s done,” she said, tossing her long blonde braid over her shoulder. “All but the letters. Damn.” For a moment she was silent, chewing absently on the end of her pen, and he couldn’t help but notice that her nails had been chewed down to nothing. “At least most of my people don’t have anyone outside of the Company, and a damned good thing, too.”

Daren couldn’t help himself; he was so surprised to hear her voice an opinion so exactly opposite his that he blurted out the first thing that came into his mind. “Good?” he exclaimed. “You say that’s good? Demon-fire, Kero, how can you say something like that?”

He could have bitten his tongue, and waited in the next instant for her to snap some kind of angry reply. When she didn’t, when she only gave him a raised eyebrow eloquent with unspoken irony, he was just as amazed as he had been by her initial bald statement. She’s changed, he thought numbly. She’s really changed, in deep ways, that don’t show... maybe that’s what’s wrong. She feels things even more now

But there seemed to be a deeper trouble there; something more personal.

“If you’re going to make your living by selling your sword,” she pointed out dryly, pointing her pen at him like one of his old tutors used to, “it’s a pretty stupid idea to burden yourself with a lot of dependents who don’t—or won’t—understand that you’re basically gambling with your life, betting on the odds that you won’t be killed.”

“But—” he started to object.

“No ‘buts,’ my friend,” she said emphatically. “My people, by the time they’ve seen one whole season, know exactly what they’re getting into. To tell you the truth, it’s your people I feel sorry for. You have all these farm-boys and merchant sons, minor nobles and conscripts swept up off the streets—all of them burdened with parents and sibs, friends and lovers. And when they become just another target, how do you explain to those people that their precious, immortal child is embracing the Shadow-Lover, hmm?”

He hung his head, unable to answer, because he’d never been able to find a way that convinced even himself. War is a waste. It’s my job to keep it from wasting as little as possible....

“At least my people and their people know what they’re getting into,” she said, her voice going dull with weariness—and perhaps with emotion that she refused to display. “And if it so happens that they find someone who makes them think again about laying their life on the line for nothing but cash, they tend to get out before it ever comes to the letter. Your people don’t have that luxury. They’re in it until you let them go, or they’re dead.”

He squirmed on his stool; her words had cut much too close to the bone.

Trust Kero not to be polite about it. And maybe she’s right. If we’re going to have fighting, maybe the only ones who should do it are the ones willing to fight for pay. I don’t know. Right now I’m just glad it’s over for us. He quickly changed the subject. And it’s a good thing I have a new subject right here with me. He dropped the saddlebag on the table, and Kero smiled knowingly at the chink it made as it fell. “Bonus for the archers?” she asked, and at his nod, picked it up and dropped it into a little chest beside her table. “I’ll hand it out in the morning, and I hope you’ll accept my thanks for them. That kind of appreciation means a lot to us.”

He nodded, embarrassed to be equating the kind of bravery that last charge had taken with the sum of two paltry gold pieces. Then again—that’s their job, isn’t it? The laborer is worth the hire. “Where are you going now?” he asked. “We finished this a lot faster than I’d thought we would; it’s barely past Midsummer. Have you got another job lined up?”

She shook her head, which surprised him a little. “We’ll go straight to winter quarters,” she said. “Remember, you hired us before Vernal Equinox because the Prophet had stolen a march on you in the winter; it’s been plenty long enough for us. We don’t need to take another job this season, and we haven’t needed to take winter jobs since the second year I was Captain. Ending early in the season will give us a head start on training the green recruits, schooling new horses, healing up—” She noted his surprise, and chuckled. “That’s right—Tarma never taught you all that, did she? Winter quarters is what makes a good Company stronger. When we can winter up, we get a chance to learn without killing anybody, we get a chance to get everything Healed right. There’s another side of it, too; wintering is where we become—well—a kind of family, if that doesn’t sound too impossible to you. And since the Skybolts don’t need to take the extra jobs anymore, I’ll be damned if I cheat them out of that rest time.”

She fixed him with a sharp glance, a look that told him that if he’d been considering offering them hire for the winter, he’d better change his mind.

But since that wasn’t what he’d had on his mind at all, he smiled right back at her, and her expression softened and relaxed. “Is there any reason why you can’t leave them for a month or two?” he asked, innocently.

“Well, no,” she replied, obviously wondering why he would ask that particular question. She waited for a reply, but he simply smiled at her, until she said, impatiently, “All right! Why do you want to know that?”

“Because my brother wants to meet you, and this seems like a good time.” He grinned at her blank stare, and continued. “Tarma trained the lot of us, remember? But she trained us a little differently than the way she trained you—she knew you were going to end up a hire-sword, so she gave you things she never gave us. My brother wants to pick your brain.”

“On what?” she asked, with a hint of suspicion.

“Nothing you wouldn’t be willing to tell us,” Daren assured her. “He wants to know about all the bonded Companies doing business, for one thing; things the Guild won’t tell us, like who can’t work with whom, what weaknesses each Captain has. You’re the best, Kero – “

“I don’t take bribes,” she replied harshly. “You won’t get me to tell you Guild secrets.”

“We don’t care about Guild secrets, and it’s not a bribe,” he said quickly. “Just a bonus for the information. Free run through the Royal armory, your choice, whatever you can carry away in three wagon-loads with two-horse teams. We’ve got a lot of good horse-gear in storage, because we don’t have a lot of mounted fighters. Besides, I want to catch up on what’s happened to you the last fifteen years.”

She started to answer, then gave him a careful, measuring look, and hesitated. “Daren,” she said slowly, and a little sadly, “I hope this isn’t a try at reviving the old romance. That’s dead, lad, and there’s no mage with a spell strong enough to resurrect it.”

He stared at her for a moment, at the expression on her face that reminded him irresistibly of someone sitting on a tack, then relieved her by bursting into honest laughter.

“Romance?” he squeaked, unable to get his breath. “Romance? With the Fire-Mare herself? The woman who thinks a seductive garment is one that doesn’t have armor plating on it? With the Captain my own people look to before they trust my strategy?”

Kero stiffened—then, as he continued to howl, began to unbend a little. “Well—”

“Kero, you’re a handsome woman, but gods help me—I don’t fancy sharing my bed-space with you and that—” He pointed, and she turned to see that her sword was lying across her cot with the hilt resting on her pillow as if it were a person. She stared for a moment, then started laughing, too. That set him off again, and after a moment, both of them were so convulsed that they had tears running down their faces.

He recovered enough to wipe his eyes, and handed her the goblet of watered wine on her table so that she could take a drink and get herself under control.

“Goddess, Kero—I never thought you saw me as that much of a romantic!” He chuckled again, and stole the goblet from her for a sip. “No, I promise you—I like you, but you’re the last woman I’d want to have a liaison with. You’re too damned—outrageous.”

She took another sip, and made a face at him. “I did warn you, all those years ago. Still, I’ve learned a few things since then. I can be a lady for a couple of months if—”

“Oh, no,” he interrupted her. “I want you to be yourself; in fact, the wilder, the better. My brother’s looking forward to it. He wants you to shake up his Court a little. He says they could do with some shaking up.”

She threw her head back and laughed whole-heartedly. “All right, then, I’ll take you up on this. I’ll be there before the end of summer, as soon as I get things arranged so I can leave. This may work out really well, actually; the cousins bring horses up every summer, and I always miss them. This time I won’t. I was afraid that when the second batch came up in the fall, my people would still be in the field.”

“Perfect,” he replied happily. “Just send word ahead, so we can give you the proper reception.” She covered a yawn, then, but not before he caught it. “You’re tired,” he said, rising. “I’ll let you get some sleep.”

“I’d be polite, but I’m too exhausted,” she admitted, as he opened the tent flap. “And—thanks for everything.”

“You’re welcome, Captain,” he said, hesitated a moment more. She still looked—haunted. And he didn’t think it had anything to do with this last battle.

“Kero,” he said, as he held open the tent flap, “I—I don’t know how to ask this discreetly, so I’ll be blunt. Is there something wrong? Something I can help you with? Something personal?”

She stared at him for a moment, her eyes shadow-laden, and looked as if she was about to say something.

But then a clot of her troopers passed by the tent, talking in the slightly-too-loud voices of those who are just drunk enough to be convinced that they’re sober. She jumped, and smiled, with a kind of false brightness.

“Nothing that a few days of rest and a few nights of solid sleep won’t cure,” she said, and waved him away. “Thanks for the concern; I wish all my employers were that interested in my well-being.”

That was a dismissal if ever he heard one. He shrugged and grinned, as he let the entrance flap fall.

He mounted his horse, still being held by the patient sentry, and turned the palfrey’s nose back toward his own camp.

It’s funny. We have become so different in the little things—which is where we used to agree. But in the important things, where we didn’t agree before, now we think exactly the same—responsibility, caring about your people—making sure they get treated right—holding to a personal code—it’s amazing. We’re more alike than ever. And I suspect she figured that out within half a candlemark after we met again.

The Skybolts’ camp had settled; he heard singing, softly, over by one of the fires, and the murmur of conversation somewhere nearby, but there was nothing like the riotous celebrating still going on ahead of him.

She’s really changed in other ways, too. She seems completely comfortable and stable—even happy—being entirely alone. Even if she does push herself too hard, trying to be everywhere and everything at once. And I still feel like there’s someone out there, somewhere, another person who could be my complement and partner. And that’s what I want, now. I don’t want a “lady,” I don’t want someone to show off for. I want a woman who will back me when I need backing, fight at my side, and take me down a notch when I need that, and who wants me to do the same for her. A real partner.

He let the palfrey amble on at his own pace, saluting the sentry who stood beside the entrance to his own camp. I don’t know where on the face of this earth I’m going to find someone like that, though. It’d take a miracle.... Then he chuckled. But at least I know one thing. If she exists, whoever she is, she isn’t Kero!

The sunlight that had been such punishment on the battlefield now poured over Bolthaven like golden syrup, balm instead of bane. Kero stood at the open window of her office, and smiled. Five years ago, when she’d ordered the new watchtower built onto the barracks, she’d had a new office and her own quarters incorporated into the plans. The old office Lerryn had used was over in the warehouse building—not a bad place for it, except when you had to get to it on winter mornings when no one sane went out of doors. This office had the triple advantages of convenience, proximity to the barracks, and the best view outside of the platform above her. Any day that the weather was decent, she flung open the shutters to all four windows, and enjoyed an unobstructed panorama of her little domain.

Beyond the gates, the town of Bolthaven spread out in the sun like a prosperous, basking cat asleep atop the fortress-crowned plateau. Beyond the town, acres of tended fields alternating with fenced pasture stretched eastward, and acres of grassland dotted with white patches of grazing sheep went westward. Here on the southwestern border of Rethwellan, so close to the Pelagir Hills, no farmers settled land without having protection nearby.

The town itself was less than ten years old, and she would never had anticipated its birth or growth when she’d returned to the winter quarters as the Skybolts’ new Captain. Besides the ransom, the single thing that had most contributed to the salvation of the Skybolts the first year of her Captaincy had been her own relatives. And not her brother, either—her Shin’a’in cousins, who’d heard, by some mysterious means, of her need. They had brought their entire herd of sale-horses up through the Pelagiris Forest to the winter quarters that fall, camped at the gate, and informed her that they had told the world that she was having a Shin’a’in horse-fair.

That, in other words, they’d just made her their agent.

They settled back and let her do all the bargaining for them. When the dust had settled and the last of the purchases had been escorted off, she found herself in possession of enough coin to bring the Company back up to full strength and equipage, the sum representing half of the difference between what the cousins would have gotten at their regular venue at Kata’shin’a’in and what she’d won for them, this far north.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, they’d brought out the horses they’d saved for her Company, the replacement mounts her people couldn’t afford.

By the next year, when they appeared again, a small army of merchants had begun the town of Bolthaven. By the third year it was a real town, supporting farmers who sold their produce to the fort, and shepherds providing meat for their tables and wool for a new contingent from the craft guilds. And now the Bolthaven Horse Fair was the talk of Rethwellan, attracting far more than just horse merchants—and more horse-traders than just her cousins.

By the fifth year, Bolthaven was so prosperous that whole families of craftsmen were in residence. That was the sign of a really good bonded Company; that ordinary people were willing to come settle beside their winter quarters. A town like Hawksnest or Bolthaven meant that the troops were reliable, steady, and stable even when idle, the Captain could be relied upon to keep order, and that there was money to be had.

So Kero smiled at the town, and at the brightly-colored tents springing up at the edge of the town like so many odd-colored mushrooms. Her cousins had arrived on schedule, and had been surprised and delighted to see her Company back so soon.

Eldan had commented on it last—She resolutely shoved the false memory away, along with the memory of his sitting in this very window, with moonlight shining down on him instead of sunlight.

Rest. That’s what I need. And distraction. The cousins can take care of that. As soon as they get things settled, we’ll have a chance to talk, she thought. I need to replace Hellsbane soon. Kero’s current mount was actually the second “Hellsbane” she’d ridden; following Tarma’s example, she’d simply kept the same name for the new mount; it was less confusing for her and her horse. She’s too good not to send back to breed, and there should be a mare from Number One’s foaling ready for me by now. I’m glad they have the training of her; I don’t have time to school my own horses anymore.

That thought sent her to the east window, looking down on the arenas and the stables, where she checked up on the current batch of new recruits.

She was just in time to see a rangy gelding with a lot of Plains’ pony in him blunder into a barrel at full gallop. He managed to pull himself up, but the impact sent his rider somersaulting over his left shoulder as he stumbled. Kero caught her breath—even the best rider can take a bad fall—but the recruit kept right on rolling, in a perfectly controlled tumble, and jumped to his feet.

She let out the breath she’d been holding. The gelding didn’t bolt; he stayed obediently where he’d stopped; the rider planted hands on hips and read him a description of his parentage that didn’t once mention ponies.

Kero chuckled, as the gelding lowered ears, then head, in a gesture of submission and conciliation; horses were generally not the brightest of beasts, but this one was evidently smart enough to figure out he’d done something wrong.

The recruit finished his recitation, limped up to his horse’s side, and remounted. He called something to one of the other recruits, backing the gelding up and evidently checking his action for signs of injury, before finishing the rest of the course. The Skybolts simply did not accept recruits that couldn’t ride well—which saved them a great deal of trouble when starry-eyed shepherds’ daughters and plowboys showed up at the gate. They generally took one look at what the recruits were doing, blanched, and went back to their sheep, their plows or to another Company—unless, of course, it so happened that besides tending sheep, they were superb riders.

Most recruits brought at least one mount with them, but their beasts generally weren’t up to Skybolt standards. The gelding just completing the course was an exception. He was tough, strong, and smart, and he would probably be accepted, but for those with beasts that weren’t, there was a simple solution.

Every Skybolt, without exception, received a Shin’a’in-bred saddle-beast, hand-picked by the cousins. That included the recruits. But Shin’a’in-bred horses were not cheap—they amounted to half a year’s pay for a recruit. That meant that for the first six months a recruit was in the Skybolts, he only got half shares—and once in the field and getting battle-pay, got only three-fourths of it for the remaining six months. Every would-be recruit knew this before he or she signed on—which tended to weed out the ones who thought being with the Skybolts meant glamour and easy money. Already this year, four would-be fighters had choked on the idea that they weren’t going to get full pay and gone to find a Company with less exacting standards.

Kero noted with approval that the fellow who’d been spilled also had a Shin’a’in remount on the side. As soon as his gelding had completed the course, he switched to the other horse, leading the gelding down to the farrier’s end of the stables to be checked over. From what she could see of him, she thought he might be from Ruvan—which meant the gelding might be a Shin’a’in cross with a Plains’ pony. That was a good outcrossing, excellent for working the herds of half-wild cattle down there. And from the way the rider held himself, he might be one of those mounted herdsman. Which meant he could use a bow.

If he can shoot as well as he can ride, and use a sword with the care he takes with his beasts, he’ll do. He obviously had not objected to paying what seemed to the untutored to be an outlandish amount for a horse when he already had a good one.

In point of fact, every veteran had two horses, and often took an entire string on campaign. Veterans knew there was never a problem with paying for remounts—not when there were bonuses to be had, like the bonus Daren had paid the horse-archers, and the cash from permissible looting.

There was a lot of looting when the Prophet went down, she thought suddenly. Some of it good stuff, from the Prophet and her priests, and from that shrine, I had the stuff I knew about checked, but the troops may have traded with Daren’s people, and who knows what they got. Besides, religious magic isn’t always like secular magic. I’d better tell everybody to bring their booty in before trading it, and I’ll have Quenten and the shaman check trade-goods for curses.

Intensive training and the very best mounts and equipment were what made the Skybolts in demand. Horse-units were expensive to maintain; most standing armies didn’t bother. That meant that there was always work for them—and very little competition.

Two-blades had taken the long view, and Kero continued his philosophy; given the access to excellent horses, it was worth the time, mounts, and training it took to keep the Skybolts’ corner on their little piece of the war-market. Not everyone could manage that long view—even the Sunhawks had gone back to being a Company of foot after Idra’s death, with only the scouts and other specialists going mounted.

That sent Kero back to the north window, and she strained her eyes to estimate the number of horses the cousins had brought up with them this year. They were out in temporary corrals, ten to an enclosure, sorted as to age and sex. She grinned a little; this was going to be a very profitable Fair. They’d told her that they had managed to talk Liha’irden into making Kero their outside agent, pointing out their high profits, and the security of trading here in Bolthaven. Here, under Kero’s eye, not only would they need only enough Clansmen to see the horses safely to the Fair, if anyone so much as cheated them of a copper, the Skybolts would descend as a group to enforce the fair-trade laws. And Kero always, always sent a squad back with them, to see them safely to the Plains with their trade-goods and their profits.

She moved automatically to the west window—that many horses needed a lot of fodder....

But the hay and grain wagons were rolling in, too, right on schedule—not like last year, when they’d been late, and every recruit in the fortress had taken his turn out mowing grass for the hungry horses.

I don’t think there’s a single Clansman that really enjoys the conventional horse-fairs. They worry about security for their horses when they arrive, they’re constantly on guard and frequently harassed on the way there. And none of them have ever forgotten what happened to Tale’sedrin. They’re at a disadvantage in bargaining, and there’s no one out here willing to protect their interests.

Except, of course, me.

The haywagons stopped at a very special checkpoint before they were ever let inside the grounds of the Fair, an inspection point manned by more recruits. Each wagon was inspected from the ground up—and the recruits themselves had been very carefully instructed and frightened to within an inch of their lives by Geyr.

Quite an impressive little talk he gave them. “If any of you let anything past that either harms the horses or breaches our security, I’ll hamstring you myself. “ And him standing there slapping a gelding-knife into his glove, over and over....

And this year, Geyr had a new twist on the inspections—a set of enormous mastiffs as tall as a child’s first pony. Geyr claimed they had noses “keen enough to track the West Wind.” He’d acquired them on the march home last year, but had been looking for something like them ever since a load of poisoned grain killed two horses on campaign.

He wanted to use them as additional camp-guards and on scouting runs. Kero was a bit doubtful of the latter—she couldn’t see how Geyr would keep them from barking, for one thing—but she had agreed to try them out as wagon inspectors. Their sense of smell was certainly as good as Geyr claimed, and they could be trained to recognize any scent and alert their handler to it. And their sheer size had the wagoners as terrified of them as the recruits were of Geyr.

I suppose now the other Companies are going to start calling us “the dog-and-pony show,“ she thought with a sigh. I could keep those little messengers out of sight, but I’m never going to be able to hide those monsters.

On the other hand, Warrl had been damned useful to the Sunhawks. What these mastiffs lacked in intelligence, they might make up for in strength, size and numbers.

I wonder where he got them. She still suspected they were from the Pelagirs. He had spent quite a bit of time in the company of Kra’heera, the cousin that just happened to be an apprentice shaman. What the shaman didn’t know about the Pelagirs, the Hawkbrothers did, and the Hawkbrothers and shaman were probably talking more than most people guessed.

We were coming up through Ruvan, along the Pelagiris Forest; we met up with a couple of the cousins on the way, after I’d left word of our route with one of the Outriders. I remember that he and Kra’heera vanished about the same time, telling me he’d get back to the fort on his own—then in he comes, just before the first snow, with the bitch and her half-grown litter of fourteen. That kind of fertility all by itself is suspicious, and smacks of the Pelagirs.

The Shin’a’in didn’t use dogs much, except for herding sheep and goats—but the Hawkbrothers might well have been able to produce something like Geyr’s dogs on very short notice.

She watched them checking out the wagons, one on each side, and it did not escape her notice that they performed their duty with a brisk efficiency that reminded her of her own veterans. Certainly there was an odd look of intelligence in their eyes—unlike Geyr’s little messenger-dogs, who had brains that would shame a bird, or at least acted like it. They knew three things only—eat, run, and be petted.

I tried Mindtouch, but all I got was images, not the kind of real speech I got from Warrl or Eldan’s Companion.

Damn. Thinking of the Companion always made her think of Eldan—and she’d had another dream last night. She caught herself caressing the smooth fabric of her sleeve at the mere thought, and clenched her fist. Damn him. You’d think after ten years I could forget the man.

Maybe Kra’heera could suggest something to make the dreams stop. Though she’d have to tell him why she wanted them to stop. And that could be—embarrassing. Her Shin’a’in cousins had much the same dry sense of humor as Tarma, but they occasionally got a bit odd even for Kero, and the Shin’a’in notion of what was funny didn’t always match hers.

It was amazing how fast the Clan had grown, once the children that had elected to take Clan membership were of an age to claim it. They’d had as many young adults join them as they could provide tents for. Part of it had to be the glamour, the mystique of the “Clan that could not die”—certainly orphans and “extra” children had flocked to the Tale’sedrin banner once it was raised again.

But part of it, no doubt, had to do with my cousins’ sheer good looks. They’re all damned attractive, and with Grandmother’s green eyes and Grandfather’s blond hair, they must have been as exotic and fascinating to the Shin’a‘in suitors as the Shin’a‘in are to us.

None of them had lacked for potential partners, and in the end, all but one had taken up multiple marriages. Like queen bees with entourages, or stags with harems. No, I don’t think I’ll tell Kra’heera about the dreams of Eldan. He’ll only give me a hard time about it, and ask me why I didn’tjust knock the man in the head and carry him off with me like a sack of loot. Besides, he’s young enough to be my own child; I just can’t confess something like that to a person who looks like he’s waiting for me to tell him a story. Gods, they make me feel ancient.

Though still small, the Tale’sedrin Clan was as thriving as any on the Plains, boasting no less than three shamans, a Healer, and even a Kal’enedral—

The last was Swordsworn by choice, rather than because of the kind of circumstances that forced Tarma to her vow. Kero liked him the best of all of them. He never turned her away when she asked for lessons, and his sense of humor was a little less mordant than the rest of her cousins.

Her thought of them might have summoned them; they made no noise on the stairs with their soft boots, but she heard their distinctive chatter echoing up the shaft of the staircase long before she saw them.

“Heyla, cousin!” Istren, one of the two horse-trainers along this year and the only one of the three who was actually related to her by blood, sprang into the room as if he were taking it by storm. He was followed at a more sedate pace by the other trainer, Sa’dassan, and the shaman-in-training, Kra’heera. Where Istren boasted the dusky-gold skin of his Shin’a’in father, and his father’s black hair, his mother’s startling green eyes flashed at Kero with excitement.

“Second cousin, to be precise,” Sa’dassan said mildly, her Shin’a’in blue eyes as tranquil as a cloudless sky. “And both a Captain of the Company and your elder. A little more respect, youngling.”

Istren ignored her; when a normally reserved Shin’a’in became excited, it was pretty hard to get them calmed down. “Have you heard, Cousin Kero? Have you seen? What do you know about these North men, these Valdemar men?”

For one startled moment, Kero thought he was talking about her dream and Eldan, and her tongue seemed glued to the roof of her mouth. But Kra’heera solved her dilemma for her, by snorting, “What, do you think she is a mage, like our uncle? She can’t possibly know anything—these Valdemar men have only just arrived.”

She shook herself out of her paralysis. “What Valdemar men?” she asked.

“We have heard, heard only, that there are men from the North come to buy all that we will sell them,” Sa’dassan said, with a fine precision of speech. “We wish you to come and look at these men. You can speak their tongue and say the things that will call the thoughts that we wish to read to the surface of their minds like little fish to crumbs on the stream. Kra’heera can then judge of their thoughts. And, perhaps, you also, for you had converse with one of their kind before, not so?”

“I did,” she said, slowly. “The man that I knew, if he is a good representative of his people, was a good and honest man, and one who would treat your jel’sutho’edrin as children of his own heart and hearth. But he was only one man.”

“Exactly so,” Sa’dassan replied. “Will you come with us, cousin?”

“I think I had better,” Kero replied, catching up her weapons-belt from the back of her chair, and buckling it on. “There’s a saying among the mercs, you know—‘When the wind blows folk out of Valdemar, prepare for heavy weather.’ They tend not to stray too far from their borders.”

Whatever brought them here, it’s going to affect us all, she thought, with a shiver of premonition. And the sooner prepared we are, the better off we’ll be....

Nineteen

“Captain!” One of the recruits came pelting up to her and skidded to a halt. He was all out of breath, but that didn’t stop him from saluting crisply. “Message, Captain!” he gasped, as a trickle of sweat ran down his cheek.

He must be first year; he hasn’t learned to pace himself yet. She nodded, he gasped it out, trying not to seem as if he was winded. Definitely new; second year on, they’d get their breath before reciting a message. “People at the North Gate, Captain. From Valdemar. Official papers in order, Scratcher says. Want to see you. Shallan sent ’em to the guest house. Says to tell you that makin’ em go to the inn didn’t seem right, even if the inn wasn’t already full.”

“Good. Thank you. Is Shallan still with them?”

The youngster shook his head. “Put Laker on them; he knows Valdemaran pretty well.”

She nodded. I always thought Shallan had good sense. If they have anything to say, Laker will overhear it. “Fine, tell Laker I’ll be there shortly, and that he should go ahead and tell these people that. Tell him to use trade-tongue; no use letting them know we’re multilingual. Have you seen them?”

He shook his head. Pity. Oh, well.

“Go run that message to Laker,” she said. “Then go on up to the North Gate and let Shallan know where I’ll be.” The young man saluted again, turned, and ran off like a rabbit. Kero envied him his energy, but not the way he was going to feel in a moment after running that much in this heat. I’d give a lot to know if these are Heralds or not in advance of seeing them. She turned her steps toward the guest house inside the fortress walls, followed silently by the three Shin’a’in.

“Have any of you seen these people?” she asked. “Can you tell me what they’re wearing?”

“They are not Heralds, cousin,” Sa’dassan said, surprising her with her easy use of the term in its correct context. “Not even Heralds in disguise. Such a one would not be able to conceal his nature from Kra’heera, even without his Companion to betray him for what he was. Had a Herald ridden into this place, Kra’heera would know without seeing him with the Outer eyes.”

“Oh, really?” That was news to her.

Kra’heera had the grace to blush. “It is only what I was born with,” he said disparagingly. “It is no great virtue, or ability earned by study.”

“It may not be a virtue, but it’s nothing to be discounted, either,” she replied. Thank you for once again pulling an egg out of your ear, cousin. Or rather, Kra’heera’s ear. “So what do they look like? Do you know?”

Istren spoke up as they turned the corner of the barracks and came into view of the guest house. “I had heard they were all in dark blue and silver, sober, like a kind of Kal’enedral. That there are two with much silver who speak with authority, two with a little who speak only to the first, and four with none who speak not at all.”

Dark blue and silver. That would be the Royal Army. What in the gods’ names are Royal Valdemaran Guards doing down here?

“Just on that alone, I’d say you were safe to sell to them,” she said, as in the distance, the noise of the fair carried over the walls. “But I think we ought to check them out, anyway. If there’s something going on up north that sends them down here, we had all better know aboir it.”

Kra’heera nodded. “It is said that war respects no one’s boundaries that are not guarded, and I can think of nothing that would bring those secret folk to us except war.”

Pot calling kettle black—a Shin’a‘in calling someone else secretive! She hid her amusement, as they reached the door of the guest house, and the sentry (posted there any time there were guests) saluted her and opened it for them.

The guest house included a small common room, and there they found the first four of their visitors, seated at the table there. Somehow they had managed the seating so that no one had his back to the door. All four were sitting with military stiffness that they couldn’t seem to drop, even over four flagons of chilled ale.

They rose slowly to their feet, looking from her to the Shin’a’in and back with uncertainty; obviously, since she had no uniform or insignia they’d recognize, they had no idea who or what she was nor how to treat her. And the Shin’a’in, in their brightly embroidered vests and trappings of barbaric splendor had them severely puzzled. She ended their suspense, though not after a struggle with temptation. “I’m Captain Kerowyn,” she said in their own tongue, and accepted their belated attention and salutes with a nod. “These are my Shin’a’in cousins; I am the agent for their horses. What can we do for you?”

She watched them work that through—a mercenary Captain, who knew their language, related to the purportedly unfriendly Shin’a’in, who was also acting as a merchant-agent for those same unfriendly Shin’a’in, who were standing beside her with undisguised curiosity eating them alive. That was at least two outright contradictions and three real surprises.

“We’re here on behalf of Queen Selenay,” said the one with the most silver braid on his sleeves, a man about a decade older than the other three, and “military” from his teeth to his toenails. “We need cavalry mounts, good ones, horses we can depend on with very little training; while we normally wouldn’t seek this far for them, word has come as far as Valdemar of this fair. Everyone knows about the quality of the beasts the Shin’a’in breed, and it seemed more than worth our time to come here. While we ordinarily might not trust that these horses for sale were full Shin’a’in-bloods, the H—our information is that you are very honest and that the fair and the beasts are what rumor claims them. Our query with the Mercenary Guild supported that.”

She hadn’t missed his slip—he’d been about to say “the Heralds,” or even “the Herald Eldan.” She translated quickly for her cousins, trying to ignore the little thrill of elation that Eldan at least still thought well enough of her to call her “honest and fair.”

“Ask them how many they want,” Sa’dassan said, coming straight to the point.

“All you have,” one of the younger Guards said eagerly, when she repeated the question. “We saw them as we were coming in—the mounts your people were training with. Wonderful! We’ll take everything!”

The older man looked at him oddly, but didn’t contradict or reprimand him for speaking out of turn.

So that’s the one who holds the purse strings. The older one is in nominal command, but this is the important one. Hmm. Noble, younger son would be my guess, the other two are probably breeders or trainers, brought along as consultants. Right, now I know who’s what.

She explained her observations to her cousins, then turned back to the visitors. “This is where I put on my merchant hat,” she said, “Only it’s an odd sort of merchant hat, because I am not going to urge you to buy everything with legs in sight. First of all, only about half the horses here are Shin’a’in-blood, and of those, not all of them are going to be suitable for cavalry mounts. Yes, they’ve all been broken and given some training that involves fighting, but it may not be what you want. The Shin’a’in feel very strongly about their beasts; the name they call them means ‘younger sibs.’ If they think you’re going to put one horse to a task for which it isn’t suited, they won’t sell you any.

Purse-holder opened and shut his mouth twice, without saying anything. The One In Charge blinked, as if he was so surprised by her response that he wasn’t certain he’d heard it right.

“And in any event, these are light beasts; good for skirmishers, horse-archers and light cavalry. So, has Valdemar ever run any troops like that before so that you know what to look for?” She waited for a response; the One In Charge gave it.

“Not in the standing army, no,” he admitted. “Some of the nobles on the Border have private troops like that; no one else. That’s why we came here for the mounts.”

She nodded, and translated. Kra’heera put in his own discoveries. “I have been watching their minds, cousin. The one who speaks out of turn is a wealthy man of highborn, who breeds the Ashkevron hunters and heavy horses. The ones who do not speak are trainers of skirmishers. The one who speaks much is a warleader. It is as he has said—and these are fighters they wish now to have. He has not told you why. There is to be fighting upon their eastern border, and soon, he thinks. Very, very serious fighting.”

Kero nodded; there had been rumors about conflict between Valdemar and Hardorn, but since Karse was between Hardorn and any potential client, and Valdemar never hired mercenaries, she hadn’t paid much attention to the rumors.

This might involve more for us than just selling horses. If Hardorn is starting a major war and wins, they’ll be on Rethwellan’s border, and that means we get involved. Another thought occurred to her. Just because Valdemar hasn’t hired mercs in the past, that doesn’t mean they won’t start.

“Troops like that aren’t trained in a day,” she warned. “It took us ten years to get where we are. Most standing armies don’t bother—but if you’re sure of the need—?”

Purse-holder nodded, and he wasn’t entirely happy about the need being there, either.

“Well, if you’ll trust my judgment on what beasts will suit you,” she told him, “I think we can come to the bargaining table.”

Purse-holder tapped One In Charge on the shoulder, and they spent a moment in huddled conference. One In Charge finally turned back toward her and nodded.

“Is this all right with you?” she asked her cousins. They looked at each other, then Sa’dassan shrugged. “We had rather our younger-sibs did not go to war, but if they go to hands that will care for them, they are as safe as may be in this world. It is well.”

“All right, gentlemen,” she said, waving to the cousins to precede her. “If you’ll follow me, we can expedite this transaction as quickly as even you might want.”

Sa’dassan weighed the first of three heavy pouches in her hand as she held the other two in the crook of one arm. She smiled, watching as the last of the Valdemaran horse-handlers urged a straggler to catch up with the rest of the herd and out past the corrals. Kero coughed at the dust they raised, and quirked her eyebrow at the Shin’a’in trainer. “Well, they certainly paid enough. Are you content, cousin?”

“More than content,” Sa’dassan said with certainty. “Kra’heera has kept watch on their minds. Their ruler is a good one; this, their Queen, has sold some of her wedding gifts to give to these men, that they might purchase the best mounts they could find. She thinks first of her people, their lands, and their beasts, and only then of herself.”

“That’s what I’d heard from El—from a Herald I knew,” Kero said, hastily avoiding Eldan’s name. “I didn’t know whether to believe it or not, frankly. You know, if all monarchs took care of their people that way, there might be fewer wars.”

“Perhaps.” Sa’dassan put the pouch with the others, cradled like a baby. “Perhaps. We, we do not place much store in Kings and the like. You have a good one in this year—who is to say that the one that follows him will be as good?”

“Nothing, unless you have a system like the Rethwellans have, with the sword that chooses the King.” She shrugged. “And then, of course, you could lose the sword, or someone enchants it, or puts in a substitute. Besides, if there were fewer wars, I’d be out of work. So, what do you plan to do now? You’ve sold most of your string all at once.”

Sa’dassan glanced toward the temporary corrals. “It has been a good three years,” she observed. “Our mares bred widely, and many foaled twins. And the first of the young ones are coming upon the market—we had a fear to glut it and bring prices down.”

Kero laughed to hear the Shin’a’in—reputed to be the most ruthless fighters in the world—talking like a merchant.

“Which was one reason, no doubt, why Liha’irden sent their string with ours.”

Kero raised her eyebrow a little higher. “So what did you have in mind?”

“That I shall intercept those Clans going to the Anduras Fair in Jkatha and send them here. It is not so far from here, a week’s ride, and they were going out behind us. Some Clans drew lots to send their beasts abroad beyond Kata’shin’a’in, and that was one of the places. They were to wait for us and your armed escort before returning to the Plains.”

The last time that the Shin’a’in had gone to Anduras Fair was when Tale’sedrin had been ambushed on the way home, and only Tarma left as a survivor. Kero clamped her teeth on her first reaction; that the fear of glut must have been very great to send horses again to a place so ill-omened.

“As I said, they set out after us; and Anduras is not so great a distance that we cannot coax the buyers here to wait, I think.” Sa’dassan smiled slyly, and Kero chuckled.

“And in return for that coaxing, you will, of course, get a percentage of their profits.” She shook her head.

Sa’dassan spread her hands wide. “Value for value, and reward for the deserving—that is how the Clans have always been, cousin. And lest you hold up to me that first fair, and the horses we brought you—let me point out that you are Clan by blood, and we only delivered to you your own share that had been unclaimed.”

Kero shrugged. “I won’t argue with you, if that’s the way you see it—but look, will you trust me and mine with your earnings in return? You’re going to lose time going down and back and the best is going to be gone by the time you return; if you’ll leave your needs and your coin with Scratcher, I think he can get everything you want at the price you want.”

Sa’dassan thought the idea over with her head tilted to the side, then nodded. “He provisions your people; doubtless he has the skill and the contacts. Done, then, and that is a kinly offer.”

I think they’re going to get a pleasant surprise, Kero thought, leading Sa’dassan back to the accounting office and Scratcher’s domain. They’re good—but he’s better! He hasn’t lost a bargaining session once that I ever heard of!

With that settled, the Shin’a’in saw no reason to linger; they left their tents, but gathered up their belongings and headed south with a speed and efficiency that Kero could only envy. She saw them off, then made her rounds of town and fortress—

Only to discover that everything was running perfectly smoothly. By nightfall she had inspected every aspect of fair and training and provisioning, and concluded that she might as well not even be there.

She sat down on her bed, pulled off her boots, and looked out of her window as a cool breeze stirred her hair. The fortress was quiet—the recruits and veterans alike were kept too busy by training and the fair to carouse much in the barracks after the sun went down. Besides, why carry on at home, when there were both the old familiar haunts of the town and the new amusements of the fair to tempt you out of the gates each night?

Lights burned out beyond the walls and the sounds of music and voices drifted toward the barracks on the breeze; both the town and the fair kept late hours. She found herself wondering where on the road those Valdemar men were tonight. They had been in such a hurry that they hadn’t even looked at the fair.

And that made her think, think ahead. Tarma had taught her to think in terms of the greater picture as well as her own little part of it. You never knew when something happening hundreds of leagues away would affect you. If I were a Queen looking to strengthen my forces, what would I do? Assuming that I have a stupid prejudice against hiring mercs.

For a moment, as she stared out at the lights of the fair, and the colored shapes of the tents lit up from within, like fire-flowers, she thought she heard Eldan’s voice, faint and far off, protesting, “That’s not fair!”

She ignored that imagined voice. You’re not real, and you aren’t here, and anyway, you aren’t interested in me anymore, she thought sternly, to exorcise the persistent ghost.

There were no more outbursts from her overheated imagination.

Well, as far as she, a strategist, was concerned, it was a stupid prejudice. Merc Companies had, more than once, won wars. People who refused to hire them had, more than once, lost those wars.

The young and idealistic fight for medals and honor, she thought cynically. The experienced and worldly-wise fight for money. You see a lot more retired mercs than old farmers with a chest full of medals. That was, after all, the goal of a successful merc; to live long enough and collect enough to retire, usually on one’s own land. Many mercs came out of multichild families without a chance for land of their own, and this was their only way to earn it.

But that was a digression. If Kero were this Queen, what would she do?

Conscript those private troops the Guardsman talked about. Get them equipped with the best. While they’re in place, start calling up volunteers, and if you can’t get enough volunteers, start conscription. Rush those troops through training. And start calling in any debts my allies owe me.

She had a mental map of everything as far north as the mountains above Valdemar, and as far south as the Bitter Sea; west to the Pelagirs and the Plains, east to the High Kingdom of Brendan. And the only allies she could think of that Valdemar might possibly have in this conflict would be Iftel and Rethwellan.

Iftel would be logical, but—dear gods, they are strange there. The Shin’a‘in Warrior doesn’t intervene half as often as the Wind Lords. I can’t see Iftel mixing up in this unless they’re threatened. Which leaves Rethwellan. Now, Karse is between Rethwellan and Hardorn, but they might be able to persuade King Faramentha that Hardorn could threaten Rethwellan if they overran southern Valdemar. Which means the next logical step will be for the Queen to send an envoy to the Rethwellan Court.

The fair really interested her very little, these days. Most of her entertainment came from acting as her cousins’ agent. She used to help train the new recruits, but that was back in the days when they were shorthanded. There were others that were better trainers, and she knew when to get the hell out of the way. Basically, all she did in winter quarters, was keep herself in training, study strategy, keep the books straight, get familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the recruits, study the political situation with an eye to oifers in the spring, and carve her little gemstones. Of all of them, Scratcher could keep the books by himself, the new recruits wouldn’t be showing anything distinct for another couple of months, the gemstones could wait—and the rest could be done elsewhere.

Furthermore, right now, living here at the Fortress was—painful. She kept looking for faces that wouldn’t be here anymore. It happened every year, certainly, and it took her a couple of months to get over it—but they’d never made it home this early before, and she kept seeing the backs of head that looked familiar—until the owner turned, and it was a new recruit. It would be a relief to get away until the pain faded with time, the pain that always came when she sent someone out who didn’t come back again.

It will be a relief to sleep in a strange bed. Maybe the dreams won’t find me there.

And yet, part of her wanted them so badly—

No.

Before she realized it, she’d made up her mind to leave. And that trip to Rethwellan seemed a bit more important than it had before.

Lord Baron Dudlyn had plainly just begun his diatribe. Daren jabbed his heel into the side of his hunter, making the gelding jump and dance in surprise, and giving him an excuse to concentrate on the horse.

Because if he didn’t, he was going to laugh in Lord Baron Dudlyn’s face. The hunt’s hardly started, and already he’s complaining. Too bad we’re at a walk. I wish the dogs would scent something besides rabbits; once we take off, he’ll be left behind.

The old man moved his fat old palfrey out of the way of the gelding’s path, and actually shook his finger up at Daren. “I tell you, I don’t know what this Court is coming to!” he shouted querulously. “It’s a disgrace, I tell you! You brother is King of this land, and he can’t go accepting barbarian mercenaries that are no better than bandits as equals to members of his Court and ambassadors from other realms! That mercenary female, that so-called Captain, is making a mockery of all of us! I haven’t seen such a disgraceful display since that wild Shin’a’in female showed up, back in your blessed father’s day—”

Daren decided to end the lecture by dancing his gelding out of the Lord Baron’s vocal range. Not that the Lord Baron didn’t try to increase his volume—

But aged lungs can only produce so much wind.

He grinned as he spurred his gelding to catch up with the front of the hunting party. His brother was up there, as the King had to be, which had left Daren to be polite to the old dotards, show-offs, and those with more bravado than sense in the rear. For a while, anyway. Depending on what the hounds turned up next, at least half of the party might well be left behind or turn back voluntarily, as they had during the morning hunt.

I haven’t had so much fun in a year, he thought with glee, as the gelding spotted his stable mate and put on an extra burst of speed to catch up with him. It’s a good thing that Kero and Faram hit it off so well, though. Otherwise the Lord Baron might not be the only one complaining. And it would be damned hard to keep the peace around here.

Just as he reached the two of them, Kero on her ugly gray warsteed, and Faram on his pure Shin’a’in-bred chestnut, one of the hounds flushed a pheasant. Two bows came up at the same time; two bowstrings hummed at once—but when the retrievers brought the bird back, and the huntsman took it from the dog’s gentle mouth to present it to the King, it was obvious that Faram’s arrow had gone wide of the mark, and Kero had outshot him once again.

And for at least the twentieth time this morning, the courtiers were scandalized. There was a hum of comment behind Daren, and he heard the Lord Baron’s voice rising unpleasantly above the rest, though he couldn’t make out the words.

“You’ve beaten me again, Captain,” Faram said ruefully, handing the bird to the gamekeepers to stow with the rest. “I’m not exactly a bad shot, but I find myself very glad now that you turned down my offer to wager on the outcome of this contest.” He looked back over his shoulder, past Daren, and the corners of his eyes crinkled as he suppressed a grin. “I am afraid that my courtiers don’t approve of your manner, however. No subject is supposed to outshoot the King.”

Kero chuckled as Daren pulled up next to Kero, putting her in between himself and his brother. “My Lord,” she replied, “I may live in your Kingdom, but I’ve seen the Mercenary Guild Charter for Rethwellan. I’m a Freeholder by that Charter, and no subject of anyone’s.”

“An excellent point, and it seems that you are as much lawyer as fighter.” The King looked across Kero at his brother. “You did warn me, didn’t you, Daren?”

“I did. About her scholarship and her skills. I said that Tarma called her a ‘natural’ when we were learning together. I said I didn’t think she’d let any of her skills slip just because she was a Captain. And you kept saying I was exaggerating.” Daren shrugged expansively. “Will you believe me when I tell you something now?”

“I suppose I’ll have to. You keep telling me ‘I told you so’ at every opportunity.” Faram turned his attention back to Kero, as his horse shook his head. “What I would really like to know is how you learned to shoot so well—we both had the same teacher, but you never seem to miss. I’d suspect you of magic if you weren’t so entirely unmagical.”

Kero bit her lip as if she was trying to keep from laughing, and replied, “My lord, the fact is that you have never been either on the front line or dependent entirely on your own skill to keep your belly full. I think you’d find that the two harshest teachers in the world are survival and hunger. I’ve had both, and trust me, they make a difference.”

“On the whole,” Faram admitted, “I think I’d prefer to skip that sort of lessoning. I’m too old for those teachers.”

“You’re too fond of your comforts, brother,” Daren jibed. Faram was about to retort—but at exactly that moment, the head of the boar-pack belled, and the entire pack started off. Daren’s mount lurched from a walk into a gallop, and as he passed the huntsmen who were whistling in the retrievers, he grinned.

This was a hunt meant to supply the Court with meat for the Sovvan Feast tonight. If Sovvan hunt-luck meant luck for the rest of the winter, as the old folks said it did, the winter would be a prosperous and easy one. Already they’d brought down a half-dozen deer this morning—several bachelor bucks and a couple of does that everyone agreed were past their bearing prime. That was enough venison that Faram had sent back the deerhounds and brought up the boar-hounds. The Queen and her ladies were coursing the woods and meadows nearer the Palace, taking their hawks out after birds and hare.

Most of the ladies, that is—

He looked back over his shoulder, to see that the handful of women who’d ridden out with the King’s party were still there, keeping up valiantly, and already outdistancing the likes of the Lord Baron.

Last year there hadn’t been any women with the King’s party, but since Kero’s arrival—and example—there were a respectable number of ladies exchanging their skirts for full-cut breeches, and riding neck-and-knee with the men. And some of those ladies were not young; Lady Sarnedelia, who had a formidable reputation as a rider on her own estate, had hailed Kero’s “innovation” with relief and enthusiasm. She was right up there beside the best of the riders, proving rumor to be truth—and she was fifty if she was a day.

I can’t help but wonder how many others would have joined us, but weren’t willing to risk losing suitors or enraging husbands. I know the Lord Baron’s daughter looked as if she’d rather have been with us. His granddaughter is, and I’ll bet that’s what kicked off that tirade about “disgrace.” Of course, she’s safely wedded to young Randel, and she can snap her fingers at what her grandfather thinks, since her loving spouse thinks that everything she does is wonderful. And if I could find a lady that suited me as well as she suits him, I’d probably think the same. Huh. Wonder whatever happened to that little prig Daren, who was horrified at the notion of “Lady Kerowyn” riding to hunt exactly like this? Maybe he grew up.

He leaned forward into his horse’s neck, ducking a low-hanging tree limb. He saw a fallen trunk just ahead of them, and braced himself for the jump.

The gelding took it, but stumbled; he recovered quickly, but not before he’d made Daren’s teeth rattle.

They broke through a screening of bushes into a clearing, and ahead of him Daren saw Kero’s big, ugly mare sail over another fallen tree-giant with a twinge of envy. The Shin’a’in-blood was taking rough ground with a contemptuous ease that left most of the other horses faltering or outright refusing. About the only ones that were keeping up with her were himself, the King, and the huntsmen.

And probably only because we have Shin’a‘in-breds, too. Though not like that. No wonder people would kill to get a warsteed.

This boar was leading the hounds a merry chase; he was obviously fast and canny. I hope he’s the one they wanted us to go after; he’s surely acting as if he was the bad one. The local farmers had reported some trouble with an unusually large and evil-tempered boar to the King’s huntsmen—a boar who had already killed one swineherd and wounded others, stealing their herds of pigs for his harem when they took the beasts into the forest after fallen acorns. That was why they’d hunted stag this morning; to give the horses a chance to run off any skittishness before going after such a dangerous beast as a boar.

That’s the one time I’ve seen Kero back down from something, he thought, as the trail wound deeper into the forest, and the horses were forced to slow their headlong gallop. When she said she’d stay a-horse, even Faram was surprised. But then she’s never fought on foot, and she didn’t even bring a proper boar-spear with her, just that saddle-quiver full of lances.

Curious weapons, those; Daren had never seen anything like them. She had told him that they were used by the Shin’a’in, and it was obvious that they were not intended for game—those were man-killing weapons, with narrow, razor-barbed metal heads as long as Daren’s hand.

Well, maybe if it runs, she can sting it with one of those and turn it for us.

The pack was belling ahead of them, and the huntsman sounding the “brought to cover” call on his horn. The horses emerged into a tiny clearing before a covert; that was obviously where the boar had holed up, and now they were going to have to flush him into the open.

While Kero stayed on horseback as she’d pledged, the rest dismounted and went ahead on foot. The pack was still ahead of them, and the huntsman sounded the “broken cover” call. Daren broke into a trot; he heard Kero’s horse behind him, eeling through dense brush that even he was having trouble with, afoot.

The sound of the pack changed, just as the huntsman sounded “brought to bay.”

Daren vaulted a tangle of roots, and burst out into a clearing. The boar was standing off the pack; he was an enormous brute, with a wide, scarred back. Not a wild boar at all, but a domestic beast gone feral.

That made him all the more dangerous. Daren pulled himself up before charging into the fray, and looked at his brother.

Faram read the plan in Daren’s look and nodded—they’d hunted boar together for years now, and needed only a glance to determine what the other intended. This time Daren would be the bait.

The huntsmen pulled the pack back at his command, and while Faram moved quietly around the edge of the clearing, Daren shouted at the boar, getting ready to drop to his knee or dodge aside at any moment. The success of this tactic lay in the fact that once a boar this big began a charge, it had trouble changing direction quickly, and its poor eyesight interfered with its ability to follow anything moving in a way it didn’t expect. You only had to avoid those slashing tusks—

Only. “Hey!” he yelled at it, stamping one foot. “Hey!”

It waved its head from side to side, nose up in the air, seeking a scent that the musk of the dogs covered—then saw him, and charged perfectly down the center of the clearing.

He leapt aside at the last possible moment; saw the flash of a tusk as it made a strike for him. Then he leapt back before it had a chance to change direction, jabbing down at the heart with his boar-spear, knocked off balance for a moment, as Faram ran in from the side a heartbeat later to plunge his own spear into the boar’s back.

It shrieked in pain and anger, and struggled forward, tearing up the soft earth in deep furrows with its cloven hooves. But the two of them had it pinned between them; another moment, and its legs collapsed from under it, and it died, as one spear or both found the heart.

He started to look up, a grin of congratulation spreading across his face, when a human scream rang across the clearing, cutting across the cheer started by the huntsmen.

Movement and a flash of red caught his eyes—One huntsman was down, his leg savaged, and standing above him, with her tushes dripping red, was a sow—a wild sow, as big as the boar they’d just brought down. My gods. It had a mate....

She squealed once, trampled the huntsman, and then whirled to face them all. And the first thing she saw was Faram. She squealed again with rage, and charged. Daren tugged futilely at his spear, but it was stuck fast in the boar, lodged as it was intended to do, and wouldn’t come free. Faram was on his knees, and struggling to get up, but it was obvious he was never going to get out of the way in time.

Suddenly, there was a blur of gray, flying between the King and the charging sow.

The pig screamed, and turned aside; whirled and charged this new target, her eye streaming blood. The gray warsteed pivoted on a single hoof, and lashed out with her hind feet, sending the sow flying through the air. Two flashes of metal followed it, and the sow hit the ground and lay there, thrashing, two of Kero’s lances sticking out of its sides.

The mare whirled again, but on seeing that the “enemy” was no longer a threat, snorted once and tossed her head. Kero dismounted, walked cautiously toward the convulsing beast with her knife in her hand, then dived in and slit the sow’s throat with one perfectly timed stroke.

The beast shuddered and died. Kero rose from the carcass, and wiped her knife carefully on the sow’s hide. Only then did she look over to where Daren and his brother were sprawled beside the body of the boar.

“Survival, my lord,” she said mildly, “has taught me to always leave a mobile scout to the rear.”

Then she walked over to her mare, and mounted, leaving the huntsmen to deal with the carcass.

Twenty

Kero sipped at her watered wine, turned to the woman at her said, and said, “Honestly, it was mostly Hellsbane. I’ve never hunted boar before, and I didn’t know what to expect. That was why I stayed mounted.”

Lady ’Delia nodded. “A good horse is worth twenty armsmen, or so it seems to me. I’ve never seen a horse quite as well trained as yours, though. She follows and obeys you more like a dog than a horse.”

“So I’ve noticed,” Kero told her, without elaborating. Let her wonder. She seems nice enough, but the less people know about warsteeds, the better off I’ll be. Whether people overestimate or underestimate Hellsbane, I win.

“She’s really the second horse of her line that I’ve had from the cousins,” she continued, which allowed Lady ’Delia to elaborate on her own horses’ lines, and ask which of the King’s Shin’a’in-bloods it would be best to breed her hunters to.

Kero answered with only half of her mind occupied by the conversation; the rest monitored the feast and the peoples’ reactions to her, a response as automatic as breathing. She couldn’t help but contrast the reaction of the Rethwellan Court to that of her brother’s. Despite the similarity of the circumstances—that she had personally rescued both Dierna and King Faram—in her brother’s home she had honor without admiration. Here she had both; an embarrassment of admiration, in fact. Some of the young ladies of the Court, those in the hero-worshipping early teens, had even taken to dressing like her. Predictably, Daren found this very funny.

But better that than fear; she was as much feared as admired by many of the Court. King Faram’s people had seen her in action and knew what she could do, now, where her brother’s people saw her successes as being mostly luck.

On the other hand, fear didn’t bother her as much as it used to. I guess I’ve gotten thicker-skinned. As long as the babies don’t run screaming from me, I think I can handle a little fear.

King Faram impressed her as much as she had evidently impressed him. I can see why Daren loves his brother, she thought, watching the relaxed and easy manner they had between them, sharing jokes or admiring a particularly toothsome lady. It would have been very easy for Faram to resent what I did for him, but there’s absolutely no sign of any such thing.

In fact, he had ordered the sow’s head prepared and served alongside the boar’s head, and presented to her with a full retelling of the story. The Court Bard was a good one; with very little warning he’d done the tale up with bangles and bells, making her sigh, and wonder if this song was going to make the rounds the way “Kerowyn’s Ride” had. He had promised her a boon when the song was over; right now she had no idea what she’d ask for, but something like that was worth taking time to think about.

The feast was a bit more than she was comfortable with, anyway. Her people ate well, but nothing like this. She didn’t recognize half of what was served, and even though she did no more than nibble at what she did recognize, she was ready to end the meal when it was only half over.

Probably that was as much reaction as anything else, though. As always, she got her battle-nerves after the fact, when everything was over and done with. If I was standing, my knees would be knocking together. And I never, ever would have been able to pull that one off without Hellsbane.

The sow had burst cover at the boar’s death-squeal; Kero happened to be looking right at the spot, and watched in horror as she savaged the huntsman before Kero or anyone else realized that she was going to attack. She had known that pigs were notoriously short-sighted; she’d spurred Hellsbane straight for the sow, inspired by the thought that only a horse was going to be big enough to distract the pig or make her pause. The lance in the eye had been a purely lucky—or gods-sent—hit; she’d hoped only to score the sow’s tender snout and distract her.

Then, as she’d passed, she’d signaled Hellsbane to kick, hoping to keep the pig’s teeth away from the mare’s hamstrings. She’d forgotten that Hellsbane had been taught a low kick as well as a high, meant to take out men on the ground who might have strength enough to hurt her. Hellsbane had made her own judgment, and had used the low kick, connecting solidly, and sending the sow flying before she could charge.

Then Hellsbane had wheeled, allowing Kero to launch another lance. And that, too, had connected solidly, as had the third.

It had been as close a call as any she had ever had on the battlefield, and she hadn’t been entirely sure her legs would hold her when she dismounted. She’d said as much to Daren, who had been just as shaken as she was.

As soon as this feast is over, she promised herself, I’m going to have a nice hot bath, in my room, with a good fire going, and only one candle for light. And tea, not wine.

The noise and the mingled odors of food and perfume were beginning to give her a headache. Though it was no bad thing to have the King’s gratitude demonstrated so openly, she rather wished she’d be able to get away from the crowd some time soon. She wasn’t used to people like this; undisciplined, so wildly different, and yet so much the same, with such—to her, at least—trivial interests.

She blinked to clear her eyes as the glitter and color swam before them for a moment. Thousands of jewels winked at her in the light from hundreds of candles; fabrics she couldn’t even name made pools of rich color all down the tables. The candles were scented, the people were scented, the drink perfumed with flower petals, the food spiced. On one side of the room, the Court Bard held forth; on the other, a consort of recorders, and near the low table, an acrobat. It was too much, a surfeit of luxury.

The door at the far end of the room opened, and a man in a black tabard embroidered with Faram’s arms slipped inside. He rapped three times on the floor with his staff, and somehow the sound penetrated the babble. A hush descended for a moment; the King’s herald rapped on the floor with his staff again to ensure the silence. Heads turned toward him with surprise, including the King’s; Faram had been so deep in conversation that he had not noticed the herald’s entrance.

“Your majesty,” the herald said, in a rich, baritone voice that was nothing like Kero’s own parade-ground bellow, but seemed to carry as well and as far, “An envoy from Queen Selenay of Valdemar asks permission to approach.”

Kero sat up straighter, suddenly much more alert. From Valdemar? But what are they doing here now? Why don’t they wait until formal Court in the morning? She looked back at Daren and his brother, only to see from their expressions that they were just as baffled as she was.

“Let them approach,” the King said, after a whispered conference with Daren and his Seneschal. The herald turned and left, to return into expectant silence, escorting two people.

One was a tall, raw-boned, blond man, with an attractively homely face; a man who looked like a farmboy and moved like an assassin. The other was a small, slightly built woman, with a sweet, heart-shaped face, who limped slightly. That was what they looked like, but even Kero recognized them for what they were; Heralds out of Valdemar, in the white uniform of their calling. And the sight of that uniform sent a pang through her heart that she hadn’t expected. For a moment she couldn’t even think.

“Queen’s Own Herald Talia, and Herald Dirk,” the King’s herald announced. And did Kero only imagine it, or did even he seem to feel the portent hanging heavy in his words? One thing she did know—this Talia was no ordinary Herald, and no ordinary envoy, either. The “Queen’s Own” was the most important Herald in the Kingdom, second only to the Monarch, and often exercising the power of the Monarch when needed. That was what Eldan had explained, anyway, ten years ago.

The two approached the head table, and bowed slightly. The man stayed about a half pace behind the woman; interesting positioning. No doubt that’s partially because she’s the ranking officer—but it’s also partially because he’s guarding her back. Wonder if anyone else will notice that.

The young woman began to speak; she had a wonderful, musical contralto, and she knew how to use it to gain her listener’s attention. Kero listened closely and carefully as Talia explained what had brought them. The girl’s Rethwellan wasn’t bad, but her accent and occasional odd turn of phrase made it very clear that she didn’t have complete mastery of the language yet.

“... and so my Queen has sent me here, directly, rather than to speak through her embassy. You will have heard, your majesty, of the events in Hardorn these past two years?” the young woman asked. Faram nodded, and she clasped her hands behind her. Only Kero was near enough to see that those hands were white-knuckled with tension. She’s scared to death, Kero realized with surprise. She’s nowhere near as casual as she seems about this; it’s a life-and-death situation, and she knows it. But she’s not going to give that away. She felt herself warming to the young woman, for no apparent reason other than a feeling that she was going to like this Talia.

“Ancar of Hardorn is friend to no man, and no nation,” Talia continued flatly, and there was something in her lack of expression that sent off vague feelings of alarm in Kero. After a moment she realized what it was. Severely traumatized veterans would speak in that flat, expressionless tone, about the battle experiences that had broken them.

What on earth could King Ancar have done to the Queen’s Own Herald? And how did he happen to get hold of her? And why? Something terrible had happened to this young woman at Ancar’s hands, she was as certain of that as she was of her own name.

And so was Need. For the first time in years, Kero felt the blade stirring.

“Ancar is guilty of regicide and patricide,” Talia continued. “He has visited terrors that no sane man would countenance on his own people, and he has turned to dark powers to grant him his desires. I have proofs of this with me, if you would care to see them.”

Faram shook his head, and indicated that she should go on.

“We stopped him once, we of Valdemar,” she said. “We held him at our Border and turned him back. Now he amasses a new army, one of men and steel rather than magic, and he marches again on our Border.”

“So what is it you want?” Faram asked, leaning back in his chair so that his face was in shadow and could not be read.

“Your aid,” Talia said simply. “We simply don’t have enough armed men to hold him back this time.”

As the Queen’s Own Herald continued to speak, Kero grew more and more puzzled. I don’t understand this. Grandmother must have told me the story of the way she and Tarma got rid of Leslac the Bard a dozen times—and every single time she told it, she mentioned the pledge King Stefansen gave to Herald-Prince Roald; that Rethwellan owed Valdemar a favor equal to that of putting a King on his rightful throne. And how Valdemar had never redeemed that favor. She watched as Talia’s hands clenched tighter and tighter behind her back, the only outward sign of the young woman’s increasing desperation. I know for a fact that Valdemar hasn’t cashed in the pledge since Grandmother told me the story. So why is she pleading for help when she could demand it?

She glanced back at King Faram—and saw that he was just as tense as the Herald, and a swift appraisal of Daren, whom she knew better than she knew his brother, convinced her that they were mentally torn—

For some reason, she decided at last, Queen Selenay purely and simply does not know about the pledge. Faram knows about it, though, and Daren—they’ve figured out that Selenay doesn’t know of the pledge, and as people, they want to help. But as the King, Faram has to be reluctant to get Rethwellan involved in a war with someone who isn’t even on his border, who isn’t any kind of a threat to him.

So he is not going to remind anyone about the pledge, if it’s been forgotten.

In a way, Kero could understand that kind of attitude—except that it was ruinously short-sighted. Half of their trade is with Valdemar, and that trade is going to vanish if Valdemar’s involved in a losing war. And if Ancar wins—he will be on the border, and he doesn’t sound to me like the kind of neighbor Id welcome. And if Faram can’t see that

Thanks to Eldan, Kero knew a bit about Heralds and their country, and what she knew—even if only half of it were true—she liked.

And besides that, all through the young woman’s speech, Need had been rousing, putting a slowly increasing pressure on the back of her mind. It was pretty nebulous, confined to a vague feeling of help her!, but it was certainly getting stronger. By the time this Talia had come to the end of her speech, the sword was all but screaming in Kero’s ear.

She waited for a moment to see what Faram would do; it was always possible that he’d surprise her and offer Talia his help. But he didn’t; he spoke of the necessity of remaining neutral, of the problems with Karse and the need to guard his own border. He temporized, and said in polite, diplomatic terms that he wasn’t going to help, as the man’s face fell and the woman grew as rigid as a statue of ice. Kero felt their anguish as if it was her own. Clearly, this had been their last hope.

I can’t take this anymore. Kero sighed, hoped Daren would forgive her, and stood up.

All eyes in the room swung toward her, and even the King stopped in mid-sentence as her chair scraped across the amber marble of the floor.

“Majesty,” she said, slowly and distinctly, with every ounce of dignity and authority she could muster. “You said in this very hall as the feast began, that I could crave a boon of you in return for my actions at the hunt this afternoon.”

She saw Daren clutch the table just out of the corner of her eye, his expression pleading with her not to say what he was sure she intended to say. She ignored him. Even if Need hadn’t been goading her, the nagging of her own conscience would have forced this on her.

“This is what I ask, Majesty,” she told him, fixing her gaze directly into his eyes. “And I think it is no more than what all our honor demands. As not only the one who is owed a boon, but as my Grandmother Kethry’s granddaughter, I ask: hold to the pledge your grandfather Stefansen made to Selenay’s grandfather Roald in the library of this very castle.

The Heralds’ faces were equally comic studies in bafflement. Daren buried his face in his hands. She waited for the King’s anger to break out.

But although he winced, he gave no sign of anger. Instead, he only sighed, and shook his head, then looked back into her eyes and spoke softly, directly to her. “I never thought that it would be a mercenary Captain that would act as my conscience,” he said ruefully. “Well, since the cat is well and truly escaped from the bag—”

He raised his voice. “My lords, my ladies, we have some private business to attend to—but let the feast continue. We shall return to you when we may.”

A hum of conversation rose when he had finished and stood up. “Daren, Captain—come with me, if you will. I have need of both of you.” He gestured, and Kero took her place at his side, though not without a certain trepidation. She could only remember the old saying: be careful what you ask for, you might get it.

I just asked for him to remember his grandfather’s promise. He may well ask me to remember who and what I am.

He directed the two Heralds to follow him, and led the little procession out a small door behind the head table, down a warmly lit hallway, and into a room Kero had not seen before.

And there was no doubt what room this was, either, not when it was lined in books, floor to ceiling. This was the famous library. The King waved at the various chairs available, all of them worn shabby and comfortable-looking, and Kero sat gingerly on the edge of one, not entirely certain that she wanted to be here—

The King waited until all four of them were seated, before speaking. “You,” he said, pointing at Kero in a way that made her want to sink into the chair and hide, “are both a most welcome and a most inconvenient guest, Captain. I am extremely grateful that you were with us on this afternoon’s hunt, but I could wish your excellent memory to the Shin’a’in hell. Perhaps it is not to my credit, but I would have preferred not to have my country involved in a war that poses us no danger.”

She stayed silent, since she couldn’t think of any way to respond to his words that wasn’t undiplomatic at best. He dropped his hand, and shrugged. “But you reminded me of an unredeemed pledge and saved my honor, if not my country. I suppose I should be grateful for that, even if, like medicine, this is not what I would have chosen.”

The man—Herald Dirk—raised his hand tentatively. “Your pardon, Majesty,” he said, when Faram responded to the movement by pivoting to face him, “but we haven’t got the faintest idea of what you have been talking about. Just what is this pledge?”

Faram turned back to Kero. “Well, Captain,” he said smiling a little crookedly. “It began with your grandmother and your Clanmother. Would you care to start?”

Kero cleared her throat, swallowed to give herself a moment to think, and began. “It all started—for my grandmother, at least—when she and her blood-oath sister Tarma joined Idra’s Sunhawks....”

In the end, she and Daren and Faram took turns explaining the entire story to the Heralds. It was Faram who ended the tale, saying, “—so as you can see, Rethwellan owes you what you came to beg of us. I have to admit that if the Captain hadn’t made the question moot, I don’t know whether I would actually have continued to allow you to remain in ignorance of that debt. I’ve been corresponding with my niece Elspeth, and she’s a charming child—but joining my country to yours in a war is not a step to make based on how charming one’s niece is.”

“But—” Talia began, when Faram held up his hand to interrupt her.

“My conscience, at least, is much happier with the secret out in the open, even if my coldly practical side is not. The real problem, my lady, is that the Rethwellan army is composed mainly of foot. That is why we hire mercenary Companies when we need other forces. Even if I could muster them, and start them off for Valdemar immediately, they couldn’t possibly be there before....”

He looked to Daren for his answer, and got it. “Spring Equinox, assuming we started on the road tomorrow,” Daren said promptly. And the Heralds’ faces fell again. “And there’s no way we can get them mustered and on the march for at least a fortnight, so they’ll arrive later than that. But—”

“But?” said three voices together, as the King raised an eyebrow.

“The Skybolts are mounted—and really, that’s exactly the kind of troops you of Valdemar need for the initial encounters. Skirmishers, experts in ambush and strike-and-run, anything to throw Ancar’s army off-balance and keep them that way. Kero knows warfare like—like no one except her Clanmother.”

He made a little bow in her direction, as she unaccountably blushed. Dear gods, blushing, and at my age! And not for a pretty little compliment, but because he says that I’m a better tactician than anyone but Tarma! Certainly shows where my priorities have gone!

“She may even surpass Tarma by now; it wouldn’t surprise me. Between the Skybolts, the Valdemar forces, and Kero’s knowledge of tactics, she can distract Ancar for long enough that we’d have a chance to come in to take Ancar’s rear. In fact, if I were the Captain, I’d lead them chasing wild hares all over the countryside and have them exhaust themselves to no purpose.”

Kero ran the basic plan in her head, and found that she liked it. “Huh,” she said thoughtfully. “I think it would work. Especially if we let them get just inside the Border enough so they think they’re winning, then lead them up along it. Frankly, Heralds, you’re better off with us; we get paid whether we win or lose, and we don’t have any national pride tied up with appearing to lose. You might have a hard time convincing your own troops to look like cowards, but my people have done it before, and accept it as good tactics. Daren, if you let me run them ragged, you’d probably make it to us at exactly the right moment. And he won’t be expecting you; he’ll probably be completely off-guard. I’ve only got one question—we didn’t make any pledges. My lords, my lady, we’re mercenaries, and we don’t work for free. Who’s paying our way?”

“We are,” said Talia and the King at exactly the same moment. They looked at each other, and laughed weakly.

“Split the fee,” Kero advised. “This is going to be a winter march for us, and winter marches don’t come cheaply.”

Talia nodded, somewhat to Kero’s surprise. “I’ve done my share of winter marches,” she said wryly. “I think I can guess what it will be like, going over mountains in a full Company in winter. We were told about you, Captain, and advised and authorized to hire you. That was our next job; to find you and negotiate. I hope you realize how rare that is.”

Eldan? Probably. How can I miss a man so much, when I spent so little time with him, so long ago? Well, whatever, he’s getting his wish; he’s got me coming up to Valdemar now. I’m just as glad the troops don’t know about him, or they’d be placing bets on the outcome of our first meeting. Blessed Agnira, I never thought becoming Captain would mean anything like that!

“I do understand, and I appreciate that this shows your confidence in me and mine,” she said, hoping her voice sounded businesslike and didn’t betray how shaky she felt.

Nods all around the table, and she found herself vowing silently that she would not let these people down. “First things first, since you trust my skill—let’s see if we can’t work out the actual logistics of this thing....”

“I can’t believe this,” Kero said out loud, watching from Hellsbane’s back as the troops rode past, out of the big double gates of Bolthaven and up the road to Valdemar. She shifted in her saddle, and Hellsbane shifted to match her. It was a good day for leaving; not too cold, under a bright-blue, cloudless sky. Good weather was a good omen, and soldiers are as superstitious as any man.

The Skybolts rode in march-formation; two abreast, which made for a long line, but as long as they were in friendly territory, it didn’t matter. It was quite an impressive sight, and the Company looked far larger than it actually was. Every one of them had at least one spare riding animal on a lead-rope behind him, plus his own packhorse. Those with longer strings rode at the head of the column; they’d be breaking the trail, and being able to switch to a fresh horse every time the ones they were riding got tired would keep the column slogging on at a much faster pace than anyone other than Kero guessed. That was one of the Skybolts’ tricks; they had more. A lot more. And in this campaign, they’d probably need every one of them.

“You don’t believe what, Captain?” Shallan asked, her breath puffing out of her hood in a white cloud. She and Geyr waited patiently beside Kero for the last of the column to move out. The other Lieutenants were spaced at roughly equal intervals along the column, so that there would never be an officer out of effective range to handle an emergency.

“I don’t believe them,” she said, pointing her chin at the last of the column, passing out of the gates. Now the quartermaster and his pack-strings moved out. Ten years ago, Kero had made the decision that the Skybolts would have no wagons with them. If something couldn’t be carried horseback, it wouldn’t come with them. Some ingenious, lightweight substitutions had been arrived at, due to the quartermaster’s ingenuity. The tents, for instance, that could be packed twenty to a horse. New poles had to be cut each night, but it was worth it.

“There’s not near enough bitching and moaning,” Kero continued. “Here I am, hauling them out of cozy winter quarters for a midwinter march, a march across all of Rethwellan and over the mountains, and hardly a complaint out of them. What’s wrong?”

“They’re bored, Captain,” said Geyr. “Campaign ended early, they got all their resting out of the way—and half the winter yet to go. They wanted something to do. Besides, the money on this is worth a winter march, and it’s not like we’re having to cross enemy territory.”

“Well, it isn’t going to be a Midsummer picnic, either,” Kero replied, as the last of the supply-strings moved out. “The Comb isn’t a bad range, but I’d rather not cross any mountains in winter. Well, that’s the last of them. I’ll see you when we camp.”

Both Lieutenants saluted, so wrapped up in wool and furs that except for Geyr’s black face, Kero couldn’t tell them apart. Every trooper in the lot had a new, fur-lined wool cloak for this campaign; normally clothing was their own responsibility, but Kero knew soldiers, and she didn’t want to lose a badly-needed fighter to frostbite just because the fool gambled away his cloak the night before. Orders were that the cloaks were Company property, like tents and standard weapons; anyone found using them for gambling stakes would find himself shoveling manure, scrubbing pots, and taking the worst of the night-watches. Anyone accepting them would get worse than that.

Kero nodded permission to go, and they spurred their horses onto the side of the road, to canter up past the pack-lines. Shallan would be riding just in front of the quartermaster, Geyr halfway down the line. Tomorrow, the two that had ridden first would move back here, and the other officers would all move up a notch, in strict rotation. Except for Kero, who would ride at the very tail. Winter or summer, tailmost was the worst position on the march, which was why she always took it. That was one of the little things that gave her the respect of her troops, as well as their obedience.

She gave Hellsbane a little nudge, and the mare took her accustomed place, so used to it now that she didn’t even sigh. As the gates closed behind them, leaving the skeleton training staff and the new recruits deemed still too green to fight in this campaign, Kero settled comfortably into her saddle, and went over everything she had learned once more.

The one advantage they all had, and one Kero had never been able to count on before, was that all of Selenay’s knowledge of their enemy was actually fore-knowledge. Evidently some of these Heralds were able to actively, consistently, see the future. They knew when he would strike, and where.

Mostly. And at least for the next six moons or so. After that, according to Talia, they were seeing “different futures.” The Herald had tried to explain that to Kero, something about how what they did now to alter things would affect what had been seen and make different outcomes possible—it had all been too much for Kero. She’d always thought the future was like the past; a path that started somewhere and ended somewhere else, solid, immutable. It was disconcerting to hear otherwise. She wasn’t sure she liked the idea of the future being so nebulous and fluid.

It was a pity that they couldn’t see what was happening now as well; it would have been useful to know where this army of Ancar’s was forming up. If Kero had known that, she could have arranged for a little exercise of the Skybolts’ other specialty, the one she didn’t talk about. A few careful assassinations, some sabotage, some meddling with supplies; that was what helped cut the Prophet campaign so short, and let us get her cornered. That, and the strikes from behind, ambushes, and traps until she had to find somewhere she considered safe to make a stand. If you can ruin your enemy’s morale, and make him think everyone and everything is after him, it doesn’t do your side any harm.... Oh, well, we’ll do what we can with what we have.

They had Guild blessing on this one, too, which was no bad thing. She’d checked with the Guild, as required, to find out if Ancar had hired on either Guild free-lancers or Companies, and had gotten a delightful surprise. Ancar had actually had the gall to chase the Guild out of his country and deny them access to Guild members still inside his borders. So as far as the Guild was concerned, it was no-holds-barred, and anything the Skybolts did to Ancar’s troops or on his side of the Border was all right with them.

That was really phenomenally stupid, she reflected. Not even Karse or Valdemar have ever thrown the Guild out. They may not be welcome, but they’re tolerated, because sooner or later, everyone comes to us. Even Valdemar.

She shook her head over Ancar’s foolishness.

But I’d better watch my strategy with him. A fool can kill you just as dead as a wise man, and is unpredictable enough to do so.

She saw something bright in the packs of the horse ahead of her, and recognized some of the paraphernalia strapped to the pack of the final horse in the train as an object belonging to Quenten, a remarkable leather-covered box he kept his books in, that had survived floods, fires, and even being struck by lightning.

That turned her thoughts toward her chief mage. He should be just about ready for Master-status, she thought. Maybe he can figure out my puzzle for me, why there are no mages in Valdemar.

For Talia had confided to Kerowyn, with an unmistakable tone of fear and bewilderment, that Ancar had mages in his employ. She’d looked at Kero as if she expected the Captain to challenge that statement, and had been even more bewildered when Kero had simply nodded.

Bewilderment was a pretty odd reaction to magic, especially when the Heralds had magic of their own—mind-magic that was, from all Kero had ever learned from Eldan, equal in strength and refinement to the powers of any Master of any school Kero had ever met. And probably there were those who were the equal of any Adept as well.

Then again, he didn’t seem to recognize real magic when he saw it, even when the Karsites were working it on us and calling it the hand of their god. And I think I remember that it was kind of hard even to talk to him about magic, as if I was saying one thing, but he was hearing something else.

The box swayed from side to side, hypnotically. Hellsbane had already gotten into her “march pace;” a steady, head-bowed walk, an easy motion to match.

Though not what I’d choose if I had a hangover or a twitchy stomach.... I wonder if magic doesn’t work inside Valdemar? I think Grandmother said something about that, once. But if that’s true, why is Ancar using mages against them? Unless it is true, but he either doesn’t know it, or has a way to counteract whatever it is.

Kero gave up speculation as a bad job, and turned her mind toward the immediate future. Instead of supplies, the quartermaster carried cash. Since they would be traveling through exclusively friendly territory and harvests had been good this year, they were going to buy every bit of food they needed, for horse and human alike, except for what they needed to get them over the mountains. That was going to keep them light enough to travel at a good speed, and ensure the locals were always happy to see them.

We should meet Daren and the army about halfway between Petras and the Valdemar border, she figured, making rough calculations in her head. And may the gods watch over them. Foot-slogging in winter is as bad as anything I can think of. I bet they’ll be glad we broke the trail for them. Let’s see; about a moon to the Valdemar border, then at least a fortnight to get across the mountains if I figure on bad weather all the way. Then another moon to get to the capital. Not bad. Better than any other Company I ever heard of, including the Sunhawks. Of course, without the cousins to help me with packhorse breeding, we’d be pulling wagons through this muck, and making the same kind of time as anybody else.

And I don’t even want to think about taking wagons over the mountains in the dead of winter.

Hellsbane’s eyes were half-closed; Kero suspected she was dozing. Although the road was churned-up muck, it wasn’t really too bad, since it was too warm for the stuff to freeze before the hooves of the tailmost horse went through it. Later though, it would be bad.

Let her doze, Kero thought, settling. This is the easy part. Anything from here on is gong to be worse.

Pray gods, not as bad as I fear.

Pray gods, the dreams don’t follow me....

Twenty-one

Snow swirled around Hellsbane’s hocks, as the wind made Kero’s feet ache with cold. Kerowyn huddled as much of herself inside her cloak as she could, and kept her face set in a reasonable approximation of a pleasant expression.

She would not dismount until her tent was set up. Her tent would not be set up until the rest of the camp was in order. The troops could look up from their own camp tasks at any time, and see her, still in the saddle, still out in the weather, for as long as it took for all of them to have their shelters put together.

Wonderful discoveries, these little dome-shaped, felt-lined tents. The wind just went around them; they never blew over, or collapsed, and instead of needing rigid tent-poles, you only needed to find a willow-grove, and cut eight of the flexible branches to thread through the eight channels sewn into the tents. You wouldn’t even damage the trees; willows actually responded well to being cut back, and the Company had passed groves they’d trimmed in the past, whose trees were more luxuriant than before they’d been cut.

The hard part, especially in midwinter, was pounding the eight tent stakes into the rock-hard ground to pin the tents in place. Without those eight stakes, the tents could and had blown away, like down puffs on the wind. That was what took time, lots of time, and each pair of troopers was sweating long before the stakes were secure.

And meanwhile, the Captain got to sit on her horse and look impressive, while in reality she wanted to thump every one of her troopers who looked up at her for taking even a half-breath to do so, forcing her to be out in the cold that much longer. She’d rather have been pounding stakes herself; she used to help with setup, before she realized that helping could be construed as a sign of favoritism. Then she set up her own tent, before her own orderlies told her in distress that it wasn’t “appropriate.”

So she sat, like a guardian-statue, turning into a giant icicle, a sodden pile of wet leather, or a well-broiled piece of jerky, as the season determined.

The sun just touched the horizon, glaring an angry red beneath the low-hanging clouds. No snow—yet. It was on the way; Kero knew snow-scent when she caught it.

A wonderful aroma of roasting meat wafted on the icy breeze, making her mouth water and her stomach growl. In that much, at least, being Captain had its privileges. When she finally could crawl down off Hellsbane’s back, her tent would be waiting, warmed by a clever charcoal brazier no larger than a dish, and her dinner would be sitting beside it. She sniffed again, and identified the scent as pork.

Good. The past three weeks it’s been mutton, and I’m beginning to dislike the sight of sheep. Then she had to smile; when she’d last been this far north, she’d have sold her soul for a slice of mutton. In fact, most merc Companies would be making do with what they’d brought in the way of dried meat, eked out with anything the scouts brought in. This business of buying fresh food every time they halted had its advantages. Given the opportunity of making twice an animal’s normal price, in midwinter when there was no possibility of other money coming in, most farmers and herders could manage to find an extra male, or a female past bearing. Just before they’d gotten into the Comb, in fact, they’d found a fellow with a herd of half-wild, woolly cattle who had been overjoyed to part with a pair of troublemaking beasts at the price the quartermaster had offered.

“Them’s mean ’uns,” he’d said laconically, as he delivered the hobbled, bellowing, head-tossing creatures to the cooks. The smile on his face when he accepted a slice of roast, and the tale her quartermaster told later of putting the cattle down, convinced her that they had done the man a favor.

The last tent went up, and Geyr, currently in charge of the crew digging the jakes, hove into view from the other side of the camp, and waved his hand. Kero sighed with relief, and dismounted.

Slowly. She was having a hard time feeling her feet. Hellsbane let out a tremendous sigh as Kero pulled her left foot out of the stirrup and the youngster assigned as the officer’s groom came trotting up with his mittened hands tucked up into his armpits. He took the reins shyly from Kero, and led the mare off to the picket lines at a fast walk.

Kero made her way toward her tent at a slow walk; first of all, it wouldn’t do for the troops to see the Captain scurrying for her tent like any green recruit on her first winter campaign. And second, she didn’t trust her footing when she couldn’t feel anything out of her feet but cold and pain.

The command tent was easily three times the size of the others, but that was because the troops’ tents only had to hold two fighters and their belongings. Hers had to hold the map-table, and take several people standing up inside it, besides. That was the disadvantage of the little dome-shaped tents, and the reason she had a separate packhorse for her own traditional tent.

Her orderly held the tent flap open just enough for her to squeeze inside without letting too much of the precious heat out. And the first thing she did, once in the privacy of her quarters, was peel her boots off and stick her half-frozen, white feet into the sheepskin slippers he’d left warming beside the brazier for her.

As life returned to her extremities, she thanked the gods that she had made it through another day on the march without losing something to frostbite.

“There has to be a way to keep your feet from turning into chunks of ice the moment the wind picks up,” she said crossly to her orderly. “It’s fine when there’s no wind; the horse keeps your feet warm enough—but once there’s a wind, you might as well be barefoot.”

Her orderly, a wiry little fellow from the very mountains they’d just crossed, frowned a little. “’Tis them boots, Cap’n,” he said solemnly. “ ’Tis nothin’ betwixt the foot an’ the wind but a thin bit’a leather. ’Tis not what we do.”

She took an experimental sip of the contents of her wooden mug. It was tea tonight, which was fine. She hadn’t had any more of those dreams of Eldan since crossing the Comb, which left her with mixed feelings, indeed, and wine was not what she wanted tonight, even mulled. She didn’t want to go all maudlin in her cups, mourning the loss of those illusionary lovemaking sessions.

Whatever was wrong with me is cured, she though resolutely. I should be thankful. I’m back to being myself. But—come to think of it, Need’s been as silent as a stone, she realized, with a moment of alarm. Nothing. Not even a “feel” at the back of my mind. She might just as well be ordinary metal!

Dear gods, what if she won’t Heal me anymore?

I’ll deal with it, that’s what. It’s too late to turn back now. Think about something else. “Enlighten me, Holard. What do your people do?”

“Sheepskin boots, Cap’n,” he replied promptly, “An’ wool socks, double pairs. Only trouble is, ’tis bulky, an’ has no heel. We don’t use stirrups, ye ken.”

She shook her head. “That won’t do, not for us. I guess I’ll just have to suffer—”

At that moment, the guard outside her tent knocked his dagger hilt against the pole supporting the door canopy, and let someone in with a swirl of snow.

Quenten, and Kero had a feeling she wasn’t going to like what he was about to say the moment he came fully into the light from her lantern. He was haggard and nervous, two states she’d never seen Quenten in—and the mages had been conspicuous by their absence since they’d crossed the Comb. There was something up, and whatever it was, it was coming to her now because they couldn’t handle it themselves.

“Captain,” said Quenten, and his voice cracked on the second syllable. She waited for him to try again. “Captain,” he repeated, with a little more success this time. “We have a problem....”

Gods. Need, and now the mages?

“I’d already gathered that, Quenten, since you look like a day-old corpse, and I haven’t seen so much as a mage’s sleeve for a fortnight. Is it just you, or do all the mages look like you?”

“All of us,” Quenten replied unhappily. “We’d like permission to turn back, Captain. It isn’t you, or the Company, or the job. We think it’s Valdemar itself. There’s something strange going on here, and it’s driving us mad.”

He waited for a moment, obviously to see if she believed him. She just nodded. “Go on,” she told him, figuring she was about to have her little puzzle of mages and Valdemar solved, at least in part.

“I remembered what you told me, about how the Heralds seemed surprised by magic, and you never heard of a mage up in Valdemar. I thought maybe it was coincidence or something.” His hands twisted the hem of his sleeve nervously. “Well, it isn’t. The moment we got across the border, we all felt something.”

“What?” she asked, impatiently. “What is it? If there’s something around that’s costing me the use of my mages, I want to know about it.”

Quenten ground his teeth in frustration. “I don’t know,” he said, around a clenched jaw. “I really don’t know! It was like there was somebody watching us, all the time. At first, it was just an annoyance; we figured there was just some Talented youngling out there, thinking he could spy on us. But we never caught anybody, and after a while, it started getting on our nerves. It was like having somebody staring, staring right at you, all the time. It goes on day and night, waking and sleeping, and it’s like nothing any of us have ever seen or heard of before. We couldn’t get rid of it, we couldn’t shield against it, and its been getting worse every day. I can’t even sleep anymore. Please, Captain, give us permission to go back. We’ll wait for you at winter quarters.”

Now if it had been one of the others who asked that of her, with a nebulous story like that, she’d have suspected fakery, slacking, or at least exaggeration. But it was Quenten, as trustworthy as they came, and not prone to exaggerate anything. And he did look awful.

And if all this was true, even if she kept them, they wouldn’t do her any good. You can’t take time to aim when you have to keep ducking, and that’s obviously the way they feel right now.

“Are the Healers being affected?” she asked anxiously. “Or is it only you?”

“The Healers are fine, Captain,” Quenten reported, with a certain hangdog expression, as if he felt he was somehow responsible for the mages being singled out.

Then with luck, Need will still be able to Heal me. And with none, she’s still a good sword. Besides, a sword probably wouldn’t care about being stared at. “All right,” she said unhappily. “You can go. You go back on noncombatant status, though, and we can’t spare anyone to get you back home.”

“That’s all right,” Quenten replied, nearly faint with relief. “Once we’re across the border we’ll be fine. Thank you, Captain. I think if I’d had to go two more days, I’d have killed someone. We’ve already had to restrain Arnod twice; he tried to run off into the snow last night with nothing on but a shirt.”

“Oh,” Kero replied, wishing that they’d told her about this earlier. Then, it might have been possible to get Quenten to fiddle with Need again, to extend the protections over the mages....

Then again, maybe not. Need never had protected mages from magic. They were all probably better off this way. And besides, Need was silent. Who knew if she was actually working or not?

She told her orderly to go with Quenten and see that the quartermaster gave them what supplies he could.

Something watching you all the time, she thought, bemused, as she settled down to the remains of her dinner. Now that I think of it, that is something that would drive you crazy. Especially if you were already unbalanced. Which mages are, a lot of times, and with good reason.

No wonder there are no mages in Valdemar. They’re either mad, or fled. Clever defense. End of puzzle.

Except I hope my blade is still working. Things could get sticky if it isn’t.

Halfway to the Valdemar capital of Haven, it seemed that their purpose and reputation had preceded them. People came out of the towns along the way to watch them pass; reservedly friendly, but cautious, as if they didn’t quite know what to expect of a mercenary Company. Kero ordered her troopers to respond to positive overtures, but ignore negative ones. And there were negative responses; old men and women who remembered the Tedrel Wars, and had decided that all mercs were like the Tedrels had been. At least once every time they halted, someone would shout an insult (which more than half the troopers couldn’t understand anyway), someone else would half-apologize for “granther,” and Kero or one of her Lieutenants would carefully explain the difference between Guild and non-Guild mercs. It got to be so much of a commonplace, that the troops began laying bets on who the troublemaker would be the moment they entered a town. Privately, Kero was relieved that the Tedrel Wars had been so very long ago—years tended to bring forgetfulness, especially in the light of this new enemy. It didn’t matter so much anymore that the Karsites had hired fighters calling themselves mercenaries—those hired fighters had been just like the Karsites who hired them; they fought with steel like anyone else, and could be killed with that same steel. Ancar had hired mages, about which there were only tales, and every childhood bogeyman came leaping out of the closet to become the adult’s worst nightmare.

So, for the most part, the people of Valdemar came out to see these hired fighters—hired to fight on their side—and came away comforted. These were tough, seasoned veterans, on fast, slim horses like these farmers had never seen before—but they smiled at children, offered bits of candy, and let toddlers ride on a led horse. They had faced mages and won. When someone managed to find a Skybolt who knew either trade-tongue or had a sketchy grasp of Valdemaran, and managed to ask through the medium of painfully slow pantomime about fighting against mages, the answer always surprised the the questioner, for it was invariably a shrug, and a reply of, “they die.”

Kero finally reduced it to a few simple sentences she had the officers teach the troops. “Tell them ‘mages are human. They bleed if you cut them, die if you strike them right. They need to eat, and they get tired if they work magic for too long. And there are things to stop them and things their magic can’t work on—’” And then would follow the list of all the little tricks every Guild merc knew; salt and herbs, holy talismans, disrupting the mage’s concentration, spellbreaking by interfering with the components, sneaking up and taking the mage from behind, even overwhelming the mage with a rush of arrows or bodies so that he couldn’t counter every one before he was taken down.

These farmer-folk and tradesmen, crafters and herders, were ordinary people. They’d heard all the old tales, and nothing they heard gave them any confidence that they could do anything to protect themselves. The power of a mage seemed enormous and unstoppable, like a thunderstorm. To be told, by those who had faced them and won, that mages were just another kind of fighter, with weapons that determination could counter, gave the common people courage they hadn’t had before, and a new trust in these foreign soldiers.

All of which was all to the good, so far as Kero was concerned. A friendly civilian populace is the best ally a merc can have; that was one of Tarma’s maxims—and Ardana had certainly proved what kind of enemy an unfriendly civilian populace could become, down in Seejay. The Skybolts knew the maxim, and the drill, and even here, where half of them didn’t even know the language well enough to ask for the jakes, they were leaving allies on the road behind them.

This kind of behavior was so ingrained in Kero and her troops that when Heralds Talia and Dirk rode in, about a week out of Haven, Kero was more than a little surprised by the broad grin of approval the latter sported.

They arrived just after camp had been set up, and Kero was huddling over her brazier. The wind was particularly bitter, and seemed to find every weak point in the tent; the walls alternately flapped and belled, and Kero was hoping to get her cold bones into her bed where she at least had a chance of getting them warm. She’d been expecting the arrival of an escort at any point, so when a runner brought her word of the Heralds’ arrival, she grumbled a little, threw a little more charcoal on the brazier, kicked loose belongings under the cot, and went back to trying to soak up a bit more heat until her orderly brought them to the tent, both of them muffled up in thick white cloaks, like walking snowdrifts.

But when they entered and Kero invited them to join her in hot tea, Dirk’s open friendliness came as something of a shock. Back in Rethwellan both the Heralds had been close-mouthed, but Dirk had been practically mute, with an overtone of suspicion. Now he acted like she was a long-lost cousin, his homely face made handsome by his genuine smile.

Now what on earth caused that? she wondered. They made some small talk, and as soon as the tea arrived, Kero asked, cautiously, “So, now that we’re within a week of Haven, how do your Queen and her Lord Marshal feel about our arrival? Is there anything we should expect?”

Dirk laughed, and shook his head. “If you’re expecting a cool reception, you aren’t going to get it, Captain. You and your Skybolts have handled yourselves exceptionally well on the march up; she’s very pleased with your diplomacy and restraint and—”

“Diplomacy?” Kero said, too annoyed to be polite. “Restraint? What did she think we were going to do, ride down little children, rape the sheep, and wreck the taverns?”

“Well—” Dirk looked embarrassed.

That’s exactly what they expected. Which we knew, really. “Herald, we are professionals,” she said tiredly. “We fight for a living. This does not make us animals. In fact, on the whole, I think you’ll find that my troopers, male and female, are less likely to cause trouble in a town than your average lot of spoiled-rotten highborn brats.”

Dirk flushed, a deep crimson. “All we have to go on are stories—”

“Yes, well, you should hear some of the stories down south about Shin’a’in in warsteeds, or Heralds. The latter are demons and the former are basically ugly Companions,” she said, mustering up a frank smile. “Now, one man’s demon is another man’s angel, and since the lads calling you lot ‘demonic’ were thieves and scum that would rather do anything than work, I’ll withhold my judgment on that. But I ride a warsteed, and while she’s a very intelligent beast, specially bred for what she does, she’s nothing like a Companion. So—”

“So we shouldn’t have been so quick to give credence to stories,” Talia chuckled, bending a little closer to the fire. “A well-deserved rebuke. But I have to tell you, Captain, that I think we were rightfully surprised at the way you’ve made friends for yourselves coming up the road. We were expecting to have to do a lot of calming of nerves on your behalf; our people aren’t used to the concept of mercenaries, and what they know about them is mostly bad. But you’ve done all our work for us.”

Kero shrugged, secretly pleased, and put another scoop of charcoal on the fire. “Well, one of my Clanmother’s Shin’a’in sayings is, ‘A slighted friend is more dangerous than an enemy.’ We try to operate by that in friendly territory, and really, it isn’t that hard unless the people really have a bad attitude toward mercs in general. In fact, there was only one problem I had—and it seems to be in the family tradition—”

“Oh?” Dirk said, he and Talia both looking puzzled.

She sighed. “All their lives, my grandmother and her she’enedra were plagued by the songs of a particular minstrel. The things he told about them were half-true at best, and led to all kinds of problems about what people expected from them. Well, when I was young and foolish and very full of—myself—someone wrote a song about me. It’s called ‘Kerowyn’s Ride,’ and to my utter disgust, it seems to have penetrated language barriers.”

Dirk looked as if he was having a hard time keeping from laughing. So did Talia. “I know the song,” the woman said, her face full of mirth. “In fact, I’ve sung it.”

“I was afraid of that. Do I dare hope no one in your Court knows it’s about me?”

Talia smiled. “As far as I know, they don’t. But it’s a very popular song.”

Kerowyn sipped her tea, wondering for a moment if there was anyone in the world who hadn’t heard the song. “My troopers are ridiculously proud of that, and I can’t get them to stop telling people that I’m that Kerowyn. And as soon as your villagers would find that out, I’d wind up having to listen to whatever unholy rendition of it someone had come up with in this village. And I don’t even like most music,” she concluded plaintively.

Dirk was red-faced with the effort of holding in laughter. Kero glowered at him, but that only seemed to make it worse. “You should have had to sit through some of those performances,” she growled. “The Revenie Temple children’s choir, the oldest fart in Thornton accompanying himself on hurdy-gurdy, a pair of religious sopranos who seemed to think the thing was a dialogue between the Crone and the Maiden—and at least a dozen would-be Bards with out-of-tune harps. Minstrels. I’d like to strangle the entire breed.”

That did it; Dirk couldn’t restrain himself any longer. He excused himself in a choking voice, and fled outside. Once there, his bellows of laughter were just as clear as they would have been if he’d been inside the tent’s four walls.

“Oh, well,” Kero said with resignation. “At least he didn’t laugh in my face.”

Talia was a little better at controlling herself. “I can see where it would get tiresome, especially if you don’t care for music.”

“I don’t like vocal music,” Kero explained forlornly. “And the reason I don’t like it is because every damn fool that can tell one note from another thinks he rates right up there with Master Bards. I have perfect pitch, Herald—nothing else, I certainly am no performer—but I do have perfect pitch, and my relative pitch is just as good. Out-of-tune amateurs make my skin crawl, like fingernails on slate. And it’s no great benefit to have had a song written about you, either—just you wait, one of these days it’ll happen to you, and then that tall fellow out there won’t find it so funny to hear it every night for a fortnight straight, and only once in all that time will it be sung well.”

“You’re right, Captain,” Dirk said contritely from the door flap. “I apologize. But I wish you could have seen your own expression.”

“I’m glad I couldn’t. Listen, there’s something I need to tell you people about. I didn’t mention this before, but I had mages with this troop. Real mages, practicing real magic.” She watched them carefully to see what their reactions to this would be. “Most merc Companies do, if they can afford them, and we can.”

“Had?” Dirk replied, after a long moment of silence. “Does that mean you didn’t bring them with you?”

She couldn’t read anything from either of them—and this was not the time to try prying into anyone’s mind.

Especially not a Herald, who might catch her at it. “No,” she said, honestly, “I tried to bring them with me, but they were stopped at the Border. By what, they couldn’t tell me—only that it felt as if something was watching them, waking and sleeping. It finally got so bad they begged me to send them home before they went mad. That is evidently the reason why you don’t have real mages here in Valdemar. Something doesn’t want them here, and stares at them until they go away.”

Like the time with Eldan, she was having to fight something to get every word out, and she spoke slowly so that the effort wouldn’t be noticed. It doesn’t explain why something around here doesn’t want you even knowing about magic, but that’s not my problem. As long as it doesn’t freeze the words in my throat, I don’t care. Need’s been awfully quiet, but it really doesn’t feel like the sword’s being tampered with, it’s beginning to feel as if Need doesn’t want to draw attention to itself. Which is fine with me. It means she is still working.

The wind howled around the corners of the tent, and Talia pulled her white cloak closer. “It certainly does explain a lot,” she said, slowly. “Though I’m not sure what it means or where it comes from.”

“It would probably take a very powerful mage to get around something like that,” Dirk put in. “Maybe by somehow disguising his nature?”

Kero shrugged. “You could be right, but other than the fact that I’ve lost the use of my mages, it really doesn’t matter. And if I were you, I wouldn’t count on this effect saving Valdemar from mages in the future. My grandmother always said that every spell ever cast could be broken, and if Ancar has a strong enough mage in his back pocket, he can take the thing down altogether. Since I have lost the mages, I’m going to have to talk with more of you Heralds to find out what you can do. I’m pretty certain you can make up for them, but I’ll have to know what your limits are. One other thing—you might let the Queen know that having worked pretty closely with all my mages and having watched my grandmother at work, I would say I’m a fair hand at judging mage-powers and what they can and cannot do.”

“That’s easily enough done, Captain,” Dirk said, standing up. “Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“No, not until we get to Haven and we can get into a real barracks building and I can get warm again.” Kero remained seated when Dirk waved her down. “Unless you can conjure me up a tent that’s tighter than this one. I’m looking forward to meeting Queen Selenay.”

“Well, she’s looking forward to meeting you,” Talia said with a smile, as she smiled back over her shoulder. “I think you’re going to like each other a great deal.”

Queen Selenay was the sister Kero would have chosen if she’d been given the power to make that choice; Kero knew it the moment their eyes met, blue to blue-green. They could easily have been sisters, too; Kero judged herself to be Selenay’s senior by no more than two or three years.

“Captain Kerowyn,” the Queen said, rising from behind her desk, and holding out her hand with no formality at all. “I’m very glad to finally meet you, and equally glad that the years have brought you the kind of fortune Eldan said you deserved. Please, sit down.”

The mention of Eldan’s name startled her; she swallowed with difficulty, and she searched the Queen’s face carefully before accepting her hand. “That could be considered faint praise, your Majesty,” she replied cautiously, as she took a chair. “There’s a Shin’a’in curse considered to be very potent: ‘May you get exactly what you deserve.’”

Selenay laughed, a velvety laugh with no sign of malice in it. “I’m sure neither of us meant it that way—and I am not ‘your Majesty’ among my commanders. On the field, the Lord Marshal ranks me, so I’m just plain ‘Selenay.’”

There was nothing in the Queen’s appearance to suggest that her statement was either coy or false modesty. She was dressed almost identically to Talia, who now stood at her side, in the uniform Kero had learned was called “Herald’s Whites.” Here in Valdemar, it seemed, Heralds dressed all in white, Bards in scarlet, and Healers in green. Kero rather liked that last; it would make finding the Healers much easier in battlefield conditions. On the other hand, on that same battlefield, as she had once pointed out to Eldan, those white uniforms must surely shout “I’m a target! Hit me!”

The only difference between Talia’s and Selenay’s uniforms was that Talia openly carried a long knife, and wore breeches, and Selenay wore a kind of divided riding skirt that gave the appearance of a little more formality without sacrificing too much in the way of mobility. The Queen’s thick, shoulder-length blonde hair was confined by a simple gold circlet—there was no other outward sign of her rank. Even this office, the first room of the Royal Suite, was furnished quite plainly. There were two old tapestries on the wall, a few chairs chosen more for comfort than looks, and a dark wooden desk cluttered with papers; there was no indication anywhere that this room was used by anyone with any kind of rank.

“We’re under wartime conditions here, Captain,” Selenay continued, accepting Kero’s scrutiny serenely. “I don’t know what you were anticipating, but I am expecting a certain amount of work out of your troops until we take the field.”

Hmm. Better make some things plain—like we aren’t miracle workers. “I’ll tell you this honestly, your—Selenay,” Kero replied. “If you’re expecting us to turn to and help with everything except training green recruits, we’ll be able to do what you want. But if you thought we could take plowboys and make specialist cavalry out of them in less than a fortnight, you might as well just send us straight out to where you expect Ancar, because we can’t do it. Nobody can.”

Selenay nodded quickly, as if that was what she had expected Kero would say. “I realize that. What I’d like your people to do is work with the mounted troops we’ve gotten from some of the highborn, privately recruited, maintained, and trained. I expect some of them will be dreadful; I’d like the dreadful ones weeded out and put somewhere harmless. Some will be marginal, and those we’ll put with the mounted Guard units, the ones I had out chasing bandits. The good ones I’d like you to train as much as you can, so that they’ll work together without charging into each other.”

“Which is what they’re doing at the moment,” Talia added from behind the Queen. “If the situation wasn’t so bad, I’d advise keeping them around for entertainment.”

Kero managed to keep her face straight.

Selenay’s mouth quirked up at one corner, but she did likewise. “Keep the Lord Marshal appraised on a daily basis; I’ve appointed a liaison for you.”

Kerowyn was impressed and relieved, both. Selenay had a good grasp of what was possible and what was not, and was willing to settle for the possible. That made her job that much easier.

“Can do,” she replied, relaxing. “Who’s my liaison to the Lord Marshal?”

“My daughter, Elspeth,” Selenay said, and Kero’s heart sank. Just what I need, a know-everything princess at my heels. I wonder if I can convince Anders to charm her and get her of my way—with those big, brown eyes, the beautiful body, and all the rest of it, he should—

A rap on the door to the Queen’s quarters interrupted them, and as Kero turned, startled, another slim young woman in Whites slipped inside, a brown-haired, brown-eyed girl with a startling resemblance to Faram. “Mother, I’m sorry I’m late, but there was a—” she stopped instantly as Selenay held up her hand.

“You’re here now, and you can tell me what delayed you later. Elspeth, this is Captain Kerowyn. Captain, your liaison, my daughter.”

The girl’s eyes went round with surprise, and she crossed the room quickly, to take Kero’s hand in as firm a clasp as her mother had.

“I’m dreadfully sorry, Captain,” she said in accentless Rethwellan. “If I’d known you were arriving today, I’d have arranged things differently. We Heralds have to spend our first year or two acting as arbitrators and judges under the supervision of a senior Herald—normally that’s outside Haven, where we can’t run home to mama when a thunderstorm hits, but since I’m the Heir, they won’t let me do that. Go out in the Field, I mean, not run home to mama.”

Kero blinked. Well, this is amazing. First highborn child I’ve ever met who wasn’t either spoiled or convinced rank alone conferred wisdom. “I can understand the constraints,” she replied, in Elspeth’s tongue. “All it would take would be one stray arrow.”

Elspeth sighed. “I know, but the problem is that since I’m not out of reach, the Weaponsmaster seems to think I have all the time I need for lessoning and practice, and Herald Presen keeps assigning me to another city court and I still have all the Council meetings as Heir—and Mother, Teren said to tell you that—”

“I have the War Council, I know. So do you, and I’m bringing the Captain along.” Selenay smiled fondly on her offspring, and Kero didn’t blame her. Kero echoed the smile. There wasn’t going to be any trouble in working with this one.

Then, out of nowhere, Need roused, for the first time since crossing the Border—focused on Elspeth—

And for one moment, sang.

Kero felt as if someone had dropped her inside a metal bell, then hit the outside with a hammer. She and the sword vibrated together for what seemed like forever, with everything, everything, focused on Elspeth, who seemed entirely unaware that anything was going on. She kept right on with her conversation with her mother, while Kero tried to regain her scattered wits.

There was no doubt in her mind that Need had found the person she wanted to be passed on to.

But—now?

She thought that question at the sword as hard as she could, but the blade was entirely quiescent once more, as if nothing had happened.

Blessed Agnira, Kero thought, mortally glad that Selenay and her daughter were still deep in conversation. Is that what the thing did to Grandmother the first time I showed up on her doorstep? No, it couldn’t have. For one thing, she wasn’t wearing it at the time. But I’d be willing to bet this is how that old fighter that passed it to her felt.

Well, at least the stupid thing wasn’t going to insist on being handed over immediately. Maybe it sensed that Kero was going to require its power in the not-too-distant future. And surely it knew—if it was aware—that she’d fight it on that point until this war was over.

Fine, she decided, as Selenay turned away from her daughter, and gestured that the two of them should followed her out the door. I’ll worry about it later. We all have other things to worry about—and I’ll be damned if I’ll give this thing to a perfectly nice child like Elspeth with no warning of what it can do to her!

And she thought straight at the blade—So don’t you go trying your tricks on her—or I’ll see that she drops you down a well!

Twenty-two

Spring is a lousy time to fight, Kero thought, peering through the drizzle, as droplets condensed and ran down her nose and into her eyes. She wiped them away in bleak misery. And if that fool is going to attack, you’d think he’d pick better weather than this. Fog and rain, what a slimy mess.

She stood beside the mare on the only significant elevation in the area. Though it stood well above the surrounding countryside, it wasn’t doing her any good. This miasma had reduced visibility to a few lengths, and the only way she was going to find anything out was through the scouts and outriders.

Hellsbane shivered her skin to shed collected water droplets. Kero wished she could do the same. If Selenay’s people hadn’t insisted that here and now was where Ancar was going to make his first attempt, expecting no resistance, she’d have gone right back to the tent where it was warm. Her hands ached with cold, and there was a leaky place in her rain cloak just above her right shoulder.

But the tent was already packed up, and the Heralds with the Gift of ForeSight hadn’t been wrong so far.

The only troops on the field today were the Skybolts in Valdemar colors. To them would fall the task of harrying Ancar for the first couple of engagements, of wearing him out before he ever encountered real Valdemar troops, and of confusing him with tactics he wouldn’t have expected out of regular army troopers.

They’d staged their defense with an eye to making him lose his more mobile fighters early on. The troops Ancar would meet for the next several days were all mounted; the foot troops would meet up with them farther north. At that point, hopefully, his foot soldiers would be exhausted from trying to keep up with the horse, while their foot would still be fresh.

Kero’s plan was to make every inch of ground Ancar gained into an expensive mistake, and to lure him northward with the illusion of success, when all the time he was only moving along his own border.

When Kero had explained, as delicately as possible, her Company’s other specialty, Selenay had given her another pleasant surprise. “You mean you’re saboteurs?” she’d exclaimed with delight. “A whole Company of dirty tricksters? Bright Astera, why didn’t you say that before? For Haven’s sake, if anyone questions your tactics, send them to me, I’ll back you!”

So now Kero and the Skybolts had carte blanche to do whatever they needed to. Which was just as well, really, since they would have done so anyway.

I thought some of the things we’d run into before were odd, but this is stranger than snake feet, she thought, recalling her presentation to the War Council once she’d finally worked out a general plan based on the tentative one she’d put together with Daren. First, the “watchers,” whatever they were—then the fact that it’s like driving nails into stone to talk to people around here about magic—but then there’s the business with Iftel. It’s like the country was invisible from inside Valdemar. It’s on the map, but their eyes slide right by it....

“We basically have to get Ancar in a pincer, and leave him with only one avenue of escape. Our best bet right now is to get him right up against the Iftel border, and trap him there,” she’d said to the War Council.

And they had, to a man and woman, looked absolutely blank.

Finally, “Iftel?” faltered Talia, as if she had trouble even saying the name. “Why Iftel?”

“Because of what I’ve been told by the Guild,” Kero had said to them all. “That Iftel protects itself—by making you forget it exists, and keeping you out if it doesn’t want you in. I think you’ve just confirmed the first, which makes me think the second is true, too.”

“Iftel is—strange,” Selenay admitted. “I do have an ambassador there, a non-Herald. They—how odd, they didn’t want a Herald there at all. Yet they have never, ever threatened us in all our history, and they have signed some fairly binding treaties that they never will. From all accounts, though, the country is just as strange as the Pelagirs, and that is very strange indeed.”

That matched with what Kero had been told by the Guild. They didn’t have a representative there, but it wasn’t because they’d been barred from the place. It was because every time they’d sent someone in, he’d nearly died of boredom. Iftel had no bandits. Iftel had its own standing militia, organized at the county level. Iftel hired no mercenaries—because Iftel needed no mercenaries. Occasionally young folk got restless enough to leave, but that was the only time the Guild ever got members from Iftel, and they never went back home.

Iftel took care of itself, thank you.

Well, that made it a good place to take a stand; Ancar’s forces would be squeezed against the Iftel border to the north, Valdemar’s forces would be to the west, and Rethwellan’s—hopefully—would be coming up from the south.

Kero wiped rain out of her eyes, without doing much good. She still couldn’t see past the bottom of the hill. But somewhere out beyond in the fog, the specialists had been at work, and if the ForeSeers were right, in the next candlemark or so, Ancar’s forward troops would run right into something nasty that wasn’t supposed to be there.

The skirmishers stirred restlessly below her, waiting for their chance. Today was likely to be the only easy day of the campaign, which was why Kero had wanted only her Company in on it. They knew that a war is neither lost nor won in the first battle, and they knew very well that one easy day is the exception, not the rule. But if Selenay’s greener forces were in on this, when the going got rougher and rougher, they might see every day after the easy one as a constant series of defeats, and lose heart. In fact, Kero hoped she wouldn’t lose a single fighter this first day, but she knew as well as anyone on the field that engagements like that came once in a career and never again.

So we’re due one.

The sound of muffled hoofbeats came through the fog; years of practice had enabled Kero to pinpoint where sound was really coming from on days of rotten visibility.

It’s from the ambush site. I think we’re about to get some action. One of the scouts materialized out of the drizzle and pelted up the hillside, his horse mired to the belly. “They’re coming on, Captain, straight for the trap.”

Her heartbeat quickened, in spite of years of experience. “Good,” she replied, and the Herald beside her silently relayed that on to the rest of his kind—which included Selenay and Elspeth. “Tell the rest that if it looks like he’s straying, tease him into it.”

“Sir.” The scout saluted, and pelted off again, vanishing back into the mist like a ghost.

The “trap” was a swamp—a swamp that hadn’t been there a week ago. But last month Kero’s experts had diverted a small river from its bed, several leagues away, and had confined its waters behind an earthen dam just above the flat, grassy meadow the ForeSeers said Ancar was aiming for. Then, two nights ago, they had broken the dam.

Now the place was two and three feet deep in water and mud, all covered by the long grass growing there and the luxuriant, green, mosslike scum floating on the top. One of Kero’s Healers had a remarkable ability with plants ... and, much to everyone’s surprise and delight, the Heralds were able to feed him energy. Between the scum they’d cultured with tender care on the temporary lake for the past month, and the accelerated growth of the past two nights, they now had the kind of cover that normally took half the summer to grow. It looked just like solid land—until you tried to walk on it.

Now was when Kero missed her mages the most. They would have been able to create illusions of solid land—and phantoms of Valdemar forces along with those illusions. That would have lured Ancar’s people into a charge right into the worst of the muck. And once the charge had started, the momentum of the troops behind the front line would have driven the rest even deeper. Whole wars had been won with blunders like that.

Instead, she could only wait for his front line to wander into the swamp, and bring her skirmishers around to harry him deeper into the mire. Supposedly there was a Herald out there also diverting water from a nearby spring to come up behind him, so that he’d have muck on three sides, but she wasn’t counting on that.

Hoofbeats again in the mist, but this time the scout didn’t bother to gallop up the hillside; he just waved, and turned back. That was the signal Kero had been waiting for. She vaulted into her saddle, and whistled.

Below her, the skirmishers moved out at a careful walk, so that every part of the line stayed in contact with the part next to it. Fighting in conditions like these was hellish—and it was appallingly easy to fire on some vague shape out there, only to discover that it was one of your own.

“Friendly fire isn’t.” That was one of Tarma’s Shin’a’in sayings, succinct, and to the point. We haven’t lost a Skybolt to friendly fire yet, she thought, as she sent her horse carefully picking her way down the slick, grassy slope. I don’t want to start now.

The Herald and his Companion followed her, silent as a pair of ghosts, and hardly more substantial in the mist. For once that white uniform was an advantage. She urged Hellsbane into a brief trot at the bottom of the hill, then reined the warsteed in once they caught up with the skirmishers. She was anchoring the westernmost portion of the line, the place where Ancar’s men might get around them if they weren’t vigilant.

They sure as hell can’t go south.

Another reason not to have Valdemar regulars on this action: most of the ground to the south was booby-trapped, and Kero didn’t want the green troops to wander into it. Any place horses or foot could get through was thick with trip-wires, pit-traps—and gopher-holes. One of the Heralds, it seemed, had a Gift of “speaking” to animals, and he must have called in every mole and gopher for leagues around to undermine those fields. No horse could ever get safely across those fields, and it was even risking a broken ankle to try if you were afoot. Regulars might forget that. The Skybolts would sooner forget their pay.

So the south was booby-trapped, then came the swamp on the west. The only “safe” ground was to the north, which was exactly where they wanted Ancar to go. That was the side they’d contest, and they were going to have to make it look as if they’d come upon Ancar by accident.

If he thought they were a small force of Selenay’s Guard—

Which we are, small that is—

—backed by nobody—

Which we aren’t—

—depending mostly on the treacherous terrain to protect this section of the Border, he’d be on them like a hound on a hare. Meanwhile, they’d try and stay just out of his range (“If the enemy is within firing range, so are you,” Tarma’s voice croaked in her mind), and pick as many of his men off as they could before he extracted them from the mire. That was the heart and soul of Kero’s strategy in this first engagement.

Up ahead in the mist, and far to her right, Kero heard a wild horn call; it sounded exactly like a young bugler in a panic, and she mentally congratulated Geyr on his imitation fear. That was the signal that the right flank was up even with the edge of the swamp, and the enemy was in sight. She took Hellsbane up to a fast walk, and the rest followed her lead.

Then the mare planted all four feet and snorted; she whistled, and the line stopped moving. They’d planted the edge of the bad ground with wild onions, and the moment Hellsbane had smelled one, she’d known to stop. Right at this point, it wasn’t marsh, but it was waterlogged and soft, and not what any of them wanted to take a horse through.

Besides, in a few moments, the enemy would come to them.

The mist muffled noise, but as Kero strained to hear past the sounds of her own people, she made out faint cries and things that sounded like shouted orders and curses, off to her right and ahead. And they were coming closer with every moment. She whistled again; the signal was repeated up and down the line, and as if they were reflections of a single man, every Skybolt slipped his short horse-bow or crossbow from its oiled case, strung or cocked it, set one arrow on the string, and put another between his teeth or behind his ear.

Their range with these weapons was far longer than their current range of visibility. There would be one ideal moment, when they knew the enemy was coming, but he didn’t know the Skybolts were there, when they would have the best chance of trimming down some of the front ranks. It was the best opportunity that they’d likely ever get during the march north; the point where the enemy forces would be just barely visible as vague shapes moving through the mist.

No one aimed yet. Kero strained her eyes for the first sign of the enemy, knowing that every one of her people was doing the same. The skirmishers knew to fire as soon as they thought they saw anything, and never mind bothering about targets; the mist would be too deceptive to allow for accurate shooting anyway, and the more arrows that sped toward the enemy lines, the likelier the chances of actually hitting someone. Any injury is a nuisance; in a swamp, any injury could be fatal.

She heard splashing, and thought she saw something-hesitated a moment. There, to the right—was that—yes! The thought actually followed on the act of aiming, firing, and nocking a second arrow and firing again. Nor was she alone; virtually all of the fighters in her immediate vicinity had done the same, and the shouts and screams from the billowing fog were all the reward any of them could have asked for.

The enemy surged forward; became, for a moment, more than just shapes. Now they were targets, and the hail of shafts became more deadly-accurate. The Skybolts fired, and fired again, while Ancar’s forces tried in vain to get their own archers into position, and lost man after man to the wicked little arrows. Half of the skirmishers fired Shin’a’in bows; powerful out of all proportion to their size, made of laminated wood, horn, and sinew. The little arrows couldn’t penetrate good armor, but they could and did find the joints, the neck, the helm-slits, all the small but numerous weak spots in a common soldier’s war-gear. The other half of the Skybolts used heavy horse-crossbows—which could penetrate armor, and often entire bodies, though the short-bowmen got off four shots for every single crossbow bolt. The trade was worth it, since they made a devastating combination.

Hellsbane stood as steady as a statue under her, ignoring the screams and the whirring of arrows all around her. Ancar’s forces floundered in the mud for long enough to lose plenty of men, before the armored officers that weren’t dropped by the crossbows pulled them back into the cover of the mist. A few moments later, Kero heard the whistled signal farther up the line, then the whir of arrows and the shouts and cries of pain started all over again, off beyond the wall of fog.

We probably aren’t doing more than nibble away at him, she thought, trying to judge the size of the army from the sounds in the murk. But right now I’ll bet the front rank isn’t a very popular place to be.

But the sun began to break through the clouds, and the drizzle lessened. Whether Ancar had weather-working mages with him, or whether it was just the time for the weather to clear, Kero couldn’t tell. It looks natural enough, she decided, as the sun became a visible disk through the overcast. Well, no streak of luck runs forever.

Ancar’s officers had figured out what was happening, too; the sounds from out of the mist quieted, except for the moaning of those unfortunates wounded and left behind in the muck as their comrades retreated. Kero whistled another signal, also passed up the line—Geyr sounded his bugle again, still in character as a frightened youngster. As soon as the mist broke and the enemy could see them clearly, she expected a charge, and she wanted the Skybolts ready to move just before it came.

The sun broke through the clouds, and the fog lifted in a rush, as if frightened away by the light. That was when the Skybolts saw the true size of the force facing them.

The sun blazed down on the field, as if to make up for the fact that it had hidden all morning. Kero hadn’t known what size of army to expect, and had planned for the worst, but hoped for the best. In that fleeting instant between when the enemy officers sighted them, and their trumpeters sounded a charge, Kero had time first to curse, then to be very thankful that the only troops here were hers. The veteran Skybolts would fake a panic and turn tail, just as the plan dictated. If Selenay’s green forces had been faced with this sight, the panicked flight might well have been real. She couldn’t imagine unseasoned fighters being able to hold against something like this.

There seemed no end to them; they filled the valley, and spilled out over the hills beyond. She couldn’t imagine where Ancar had gotten so many men—and they were all men, all that she could see, anyway. That in itself was ominous; why not have female fighters, archers at least?

Bloody hell. Better get out of range, quick! She gave Hellsbane her cue, and the mare reared as if spurred, screamed and slewed around on her hindquarters, and lurched into a gallop. The rest of her fighters weren’t far behind her. She bent over Hellsbane’s neck and looked back over her shoulder.

As she had expected, Ancar’s officers reacted to that apparent stampede by frantically signaling a charge. But they didn’t know the ground, and Kero and her native guides did.

Their mounted troops were on tired beasts that had just spent the last candlemark struggling through mire. And the poor things weren’t Shin’a’in-bred. They did their best, but before they’d even gotten to firm ground, the Skybolts were well out of range of even the heaviest crossbow. Once on firm ground, they still weren’t a match for Shin’a’in-bred speed and stamina. The lead continued to open. She grinned, ferally. Never reckoned on that, did you, m‘lord Ancar?

Kero halfway expected them to give up and turn back, but they didn’t; that meant it was time to give them another goading. She wheeled Hellsbane at the top of the slope, and raised her hand; a heartbeat later, the rest of the Skybolts joined her on the ridge, already readying another flight of arrows, and as she brought her hand down, they rained missiles down on the cavalry struggling up the slope toward them. Horses and riders alike fell screaming in pain, and as the front rank went down, they tripped the ranks behind, bringing the charge to chaos. She hated to do it, but horses were harder to replace than fighters, so horses were fair targets.

This time she only allowed time for one crossbow volley before signaling that it was time to run again.

She thought that surely they’d turn back now—but when she looked back over her shoulder as the Skybolts pounded down the other side of the hill, she saw the first of them, silhouetted against the sky, still coming.

What in hell is driving these men? What could be so bad behind them that they’d rather face this?

She debated stopping a second time and letting off another volley, but something deep inside her told her that might not be wise. In another moment, she was very glad she’d made that decision, for riding at the head of the charge, on a strange, horned creature that was not a horse, was an unarmored man dressed in brilliant scarlet.

A mage. She made a split-second decision. Need would protect her—but she didn’t know if it could still protect the rest of her troops without Quenten there to make sure of the extension of the spell. As always, Hellsbane was in the lead, whether in retreat or in the charge; she waved to her Lieutenants to go on without her, and pulled the mare up, reining her around, and readying her own bow.

This one had better count—

She raised the bow, arrow pulled to her ear; saw the mage raise his hands—gesture, a throwing motion—

—felt a tingle all over her body, like the pins-and-needles of a limb waking from being benumbed—

And heard, in the back of her mind, an angry humming, as if she’d roused a hive full of enraged bees.

Need? What’s the damned thing doing this time?

She was too far away to see the mage’s face—he was really at the extreme of her best range—but he raised his hands again as she loosed her arrow, and his abrupt movement seemed to speak of anger and puzzlement.

She never even saw the arrow in flight; neither did he, or he might have been able to deflect it arcanely. But as the tingle increased, so did the humming, until it seemed to be actually in her ears. And not two lengths from him, the arrow she had loosed suddenly incandesced, and flared to an intolerable brightness as it hit him squarely in the chest, burying itself right to the feathers.

He froze for a moment in mid-gesture, then slowly toppled from his mount, which turned—of all unlikely things—into a milch-cow. An exhausted, gaunt cow, that wandered two or three steps, then fell over on its side, unable to rise again.

The humming stopped, and Kero was not about to wait around to see if her action stopped the pursuit. She turned Hellsbane in a pivot on her two rear hooves, and continued her flight, giving the mare her head until the war-steed caught up with the rest of the troops. She didn’t look back. If there’s anything more back there, I don’t want to know about it.

Hellsbane was no longer running easily; sweat foamed on her neck, and Kero felt her sides heave under her legs. Finally the laboring of their horses forced them to slow—and this time, when they slowed to a walk and looked back, there was no one in sight. The horses drooped, gasping great gulps of air, coats sodden with sweat. She felt guilty for having had to push them so much.

And she was profoundly grateful that she wasn’t going to have to push them any more. It looked as if Ancar didn’t have any more mages to spare.

Gods be praised. I don’t think I’ll get to pull that off a second time. They weren’t expecting Need—now they’ll be doubly careful. And damned if I know what it was she did to my arrow. She’s never done anything like that before.

Then again, we’ve never fought in service of a female monarch against a male enemy before, an enemy who wants the monarch’s hide for a rug, and that’s just for a beginning.

The Herald gave her a peculiar look when she took Hellsbane in beside him, but he didn’t say anything. She wondered how much of the exchange with the mage he had seen, then decided that it really didn’t matter. “I don’t see any reason to alter the plan yet,” she told him. “Tell Selenay to bring up her light cavalry behind us—I don’t think we’ll be seeing any more action today, but I didn’t think they’d follow us over that first ridge, either. We need a rear guard, at least for the moment.”

He nodded, and went off into his little trance, and his Companion gave her one of those blue-eyed stares that Eldan’s Companion Ratha had sometimes fixed her with. She nudged the mare with her heel, and moved Hellsbane ahead of them, suddenly uneasy with the penetrating intelligence behind those eyes. She had the feeling that even if the Herald had missed the mage’s attack and defeat, his Companion hadn’t.

He doesn’t know what to make of me, either. He’s giving me one of those looks, like he had thought I was just a grunt-fighter, and now he’s not so sure.

It was a most unnerving feeling, and she began to have an idea how Quenten and the others had felt, before they’d quit Valdemar and headed home.

It felt as if she was being weighed and tested against some unknown standard. And what was more, she didn’t like it.

Finally she couldn’t take any more of it. She dropped Hellsbane back, and deliberately made eye contact with the Companion. His Herald was still off in the clouds somewhere, communing with his brethren, which left the field safe for what she intended to do—

Which was to drop shields, and think directly at the creature, :Look, I don’t tell you how to do your job. I’m doing what I pledged Selenay I’d do, and what’s more, I’m doing a damned good piece of work so far. You keep your prejudices to yourself and stay the hell out of my way and my head so I can keep doing it!:

The Companion started and jerked his head up, his eyes wide, as if she’d stung him with a pebble in the hindquarters. She slammed her shields shut again, and sent Hellsbane into a tired canter that took her to the front of the troop.

And when next she looked back, the Companion met her gaze with a wary respect—and nothing more.

She couldn’t help herself; she wore a smug little smile all the way back to the camp. “Don’t make judgment calls; you might find yourself on the other end of one.” That’s another one of Tarma’s sayings. And right now, I’m as guilty of it as that Companion is.

But damn if that didn’t feel good.

Camp was a cold camp; no fires, and trail rations. Tents stayed packed up; until they figured out the pattern Ancar’s troops had, Kero wasn’t going to give him any vulnerable points to hit—like a camp. Even with experienced fighters like hers, “camp” meant “safe” in the back of their minds, and right now she didn’t want anyone thinking “safe.”

They’d bivouacked in a grove of hezelnut bushes, tucking bedrolls out of sight under the bushes themselves, helping out nature’s own camouflage with artfully placed branches. From a distance, no one would ever guess there was an entire Company of fighters and their horses in here; it looked like any deserted orchard. What with the three rings of perimeter guards, no one would get close enough to find out any differently.

And that tentlessness included Kero. It was good for morale—and it made her less of a target. She did have one of the better bushes, a clump of them, actually, with thick, drooping branches, but room on the inside for three or four; and she had it alone—but there were a few advantages to being Captain.

The Herald vanished after they’d tucked themselves up, established perimeters and set watches, and sent the specialists off to make Ancar’s life interesting. She settled down on her bedroll with a piece of jerky in one hand and a tiny, shielded dark-lantern focused on the detailed map spread over her knees. At some point during her study her orderly brought her a battered tin cup full of water, and said—rather too calmly—that the Herald who’d been with her this morning was being replaced.

She looked up, sharply, and saw the corners of his mouth twitching. “Ah,” she said, and left it at that.

Made himself unwelcome, did he? Maybe I did a little judging, but it sounds like he did a lot more.

She fell asleep with a clear conscience, and a resolve not to let the replacement get on her officers’ nerves as the first Herald had.

In the morning, as soon as she’d gotten the reports from her scouts, she gathered her officers together inside the heart of the grove, to lay out her next plan of action. While she gave each Lieutenant his orders, she caught sight of something white moving up, just out of the corner of her eye.

So our first liaison couldn’t handle the job. A little late, my friend, she thought to herself, and I hope you’re a bit more flexible than your predecessor. But she otherwise ignored him until she’d finished briefing her officers. Only then did she turn to see who—or what—Selenay had sent to her this time.

And felt as if someone had just poleaxed her.

“Oh,” she said, faintly.

“I’m—uh—the replacement,” Eldan said with hesitation, playing with the ends of his Companion’s reins. “Selenay thought you’d be less likely to frighten us off. At least, on purpose.”

“I wouldn’t count on that if I were her,” Kero replied, around a funny feeling in her chest, still staring at him. He looked wonderful; he hadn’t aged to speak of, her dream Eldan become substantial. “You’ve never ridden with my troops. We’re a nasty lot, and what we meet up with tends to be just as vicious as we are.”

“That wasn’t what she meant.” Eldan dropped his eyes before she did, which gave her a chance to give him a quick once-over before he looked up again. He hadn’t changed much, either; maybe the white streaks in his hair were a little wider, and there were a couple of smile-lines around his mouth and eyes, but otherwise he was the same. She wondered how she looked to him. “It doesn’t have to be me. If you don’t want—I mean—”

“I don’t,” she interrupted him fiercely, fairly sure what he was going to say, and not wanting to hear it. “I can’t afford a liability, not here, not now. I can’t permit you to distract me from my people. If you can do your job and leave it at that, fine. Otherwise, find me someone else. And make sure it’s someone with guts and a sense of humor this time. We’re perilous short of both.”

“I’d noticed,” Eldan muttered with a flash of resentment and irritation, not quite under his breath.

“You—you what?” She stared at him for a moment, torn between wanting to laugh, and wanting to rip his face off for that.

Laughter won.

She leaned up against Hellsbane’s saddle, then shook with silent laughter, until her knees were weak and tears ran down her face. Eldan just stood there, looking a little puzzled, but otherwise keeping his mouth shut.

“Oh, gods,” she said, or rather, gasped. “Oh, dear gods. I had that coming.” She pushed away from the mare, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

“You certainly did,” Eldan said agreeably. Then he widened his eyes, and his tone grew wheedling. “Come on, Kero, you need me along just to keep you humble.”

“I do not,” she retorted, stung. “And I don’t need you pulling any ‘mama, may I’ acts on me. But as long as you’re here, you might as well tag along anyway.” She was tempted to jump into the saddle without using the stirrups—

But that’s a youngster’s show-off trick. Besides, it wouldn’t impress him.

:I wouldn’t leap into the saddle like a young hero if I were you,: said the familiar voice in her head. :l’d have to match you, and I’m too old and tired for that.:

:Sure you are.: She’d answered him the same way without realizing it until she’d done so. For the first time in her life, Mindspeech felt as natural as audible speech. Even with Warrl it had been an effort, and seemed wrong, like trying to walk on her hands and eat with her feet.

She should have been alarmed by that; she should have been unhappy to be reminded that she had the Gift. The youngster training with Tarma would have been ready to gut him. The Kero of ten years ago would have ordered him out of her Company. But now—all that fuss seemed pretty stupid, and awfully paranoid. It was an ability, like her perfect pitch—and a lot more useful. Now talking by Mindspeech felt as if she’d been doing it for years, :besides, it’s about time you found out what military discipline is like. It’ll do you good. And while we’re in the field, it’s Captain. Not Kero, not Captain Kero. Captain. Got that?:

He nodded, swinging up into his Companion’s saddle. :Sorry, Captain. And I think I understand. This is a military command, and you need a different kind of attitude from everybody connected with your troops, right? Otherwise discipline breaks down. Heralds do things differently; we encourage familiarity, but we almost never get it.:

:Heralds don’t have to command a few hundred hot-blooded, hard-headed fighters, each of whom is at some time or other convinced he could Captain the Company better than you.: She sent Hellsbane out through the bushes to the field on the other side where the Skybolts were mustering. Eldan kept right at her side, as if they’d been doing this together for years.

:You haven’t had that particular problem for the past six fighting seasons,: he retorted, :Your people follow you the way no other Captain could command. Right now your only problem is that they are so confident in you that you’re afraid they won’t come to you when they think there’s something wrong with your strategy. So don’t start feeling sorry for yourself.:

Since that was exactly what she’d been confiding in the dream-Eldan in the last dream she’d had about him, she was understandably startled.

She reined Hellsbane in so fast that the horse reared a little, snorting, as she whipped around in the saddle to face him. “How did you know that?” she blurted, flushing and chilling in turn. “I haven’t said anything to anyone about that—”

:Except in dreams.: He had gone a little pale, himself. :They weren’t dreams, were they?:

Hellsbane reacted to her unconscious signals, and backed up, one slow step at a time. “I thought they were,” she said, and her voice shook. “I thought you were. I thought I was going crazy. I thought it didn’t matter. If I hadn’t, I’d never have said—done—half of what I did—”

“Why not?” he demanded, his Companion Ratha matching Hellsbane’s every step. The mare flattened her ears and snapped; the Companion ignored her. “Weren’t we friends, at least? I thought we were. Oh, I admit it, that was a dirty trick I played on you with the ransom, but I had no idea how desperate your situation was, I thought your Company and Captain were pretty much intact. If I’d known, I’d have had Selenay send you double, with no strings attached, and not because I felt sorry for you, no, but because we were—are—friends, and friends help each other. But after that—the dreams—I thought I’d made amends. I needed to talk with you, needed to be with you. I couldn’t let you just walk out of my life like that. Kero—I—I love you. I’ll take anything I can get with you.”

She forced herself to think rationally—after all, this wasn’t much different from the way he was Mindspeaking her now—and slowly relaxed. “I got you back with the ransom,” she reminded him, as she loosed her hands on the reins, and Hellsbane stopped backing.

He grinned at that, and nodded. :You certainly did, and cleverly, too. And I wish you’d been there to see the old goat they sent as the Guild proxy. He just gave me one look, and made me feel like a small boy who’s been caught trying to look up little girls’ dresses.:

She chuckled at the image he sent her; it was a Guild representative she barely recognized, but knew by reputation, which was formidable.

:But that’s not the point,: he continued. :The reason I kept coming to you is that I’m your friend before I’m anything else, Kero. Friends help each other; friends bring their troubles to each other, especially if they can’t take them anywhere else. And I confided a good share in you, didn’t I?:

She nodded reluctantly, once he’d called up the memory. “Did you really want to strangle that idiot that much?”

“Yes,” Eldan replied. “He made me angry, then made me look like a fool in front of a lot of people because I acted out of anger before I thought. I wanted to strangle him. You managed to persuade me that the best way to deal with him was to ignore him. But you know—I still want to strangle him.”

She laughed, silently, and shook her head. All she’d done with him was talk mind-to-mind—which was probably why she was no longer so awkward at it—and take and give advice. The same kind she’d have taken and given if they’d been talking face-to-face. That wasn’t so bad....

In fact, she’d enjoyed it.

I probably should be angry at him, but I can’t be. “Are you sure you’re up to this job?” she asked, after a long pause. “You don’t have to be my liaison. I’m not the easiest person in the world to get along with. And I wasn’t joking about calling me ‘Captain,’ at least in public.”

:I have my share of warts. I’ll call you anything you want. And you could do without me, you know. You’re just as good at Mindspeech as I am.:

“Not a chance,” she snorted. “Come on, tagalong. I’ve got a war to run.”

Then, shyly—

:I love you, too. But you knew that, didn’t you. I told you before. In dreams.:

:You did,: he replied promptly. :I can’t promise it won’t color things. But I can and do promise if it starts causing problems for either of us, I’ll get Selenay to assign you someone else. She—she knows about us. This was her idea.:

That put a whole new complexion on things.

:I’m a Captain first, and a lover second. But—there just might be room for the lover, now.:

:Only if it doesn’t interfere.: He was adamant.

So was she. :Only if it doesn’t interfere. So far it hasn’t. Let’s ride this out :

He smiled. :Captain, you’ve got yourself a bargain. And a recruit.:

* * *

Today the plan called for her Company and Selenay’s cavalry to combine, and give Ancar just enough of a taste of combat to make him think that they really were trying to keep him out of Valdemar. Then they were to pretend panic, and run for the next set of Guards, posted farther north.

The trouble was, that little taste turned into a rather large and painful bite.

They spent most of the day leading the enemy overland, keeping just out of range, exhausting his horses while they changed off on their remounts at noon, and had fresh beasts to his tired ones. Then, just before sunset, they pretended to make a stand, teased Ancar’s men into a charge, and retreated, under covering fire.

The spot for their stand had been carefully chosen; a rocky hillside with plenty of cover, and too many boulders for Ancar’s cavalry to charge. Kero watched with a critical eye, carefully gauging the weariness of Ancar’s fighters. She let three successive waves approach her position, and be driven back—waiting for Ancar’s officers to call in the tired men for the night.

Instead, they kept coming; a fourth wave, and as the sun set, a fifth.

And under torchlight, a sixth.

They were running out of ammunition, energy—and still the enemy kept coming, though he left his dead and wounded in heaps at the foot of their stony shelter.

After the eighth wave had retreated, Kero put down her bow and sagged against her boulder with exhaustion. Her arms were like a pair of lead bars; her legs shook with weariness. And she was in relatively good shape. Selenay’s people, far more inclined than hers to risk themselves for a good shot, had managed to populate the rude shelter the Healers had assembled with their wounded. Not too many Skybolts wore bandages yet, but if this kept up....

She watched the torches bobbing and dancing out beyond firing range and longed fiercely for her mages. It looked—dear gods!—like they were massing for attack-wave number nine.

“I don’t believe this,” she muttered, staring at Ancar’s lines.

“I don’t either,” said Shallan from the other side of the boulder, in a voice fogged with fatigue. “They’re not human.”

“Or they’re driven by something that isn’t human,” Eldan said grimly. “The bastard has some kind of hold over them. They’d rather face our arrows than what he’s got over there.”

Kero turned around and looked over her shoulder. “Is that a guess, or information?”

Eldan looked like the rest of them; his white uniform was smudged and filthy, there was dirt in his hair, and sweat-streaked dust on his face. “A guess,” he said, staring past her at the enemy. “I’m not an Empath, like Talia. And they have some kind of shield over them that prevents me from reading their thoughts. But I think it’s a pretty good guess.”

“Seeing as they had one mage with them that was willing to charge right in after us, you’re probably right,” Kero said, turning back to look at the enemy herself.

“If they have mages, why haven’t they used magic on us?” Eldan wondered aloud. Kero gave him a sharp look out of the corner of her eye, but it didn’t look as if he was being sarcastic or asking a pointed question; merely as if he really was puzzled.

She shrugged. “Maybe because we’re inside Valdemar,” she said. “Maybe he only had the one mage. Maybe because he’s saving the mages for when he has a target worth their while.” She watched the milling of the enemy troops for a moment more, then made her decision.

“Tell Selenay and the rest that I’ve just changed the plan,” she told Eldan. “Get the foot troops out first, then Selenay’s horse, then we’ll play rearguard. We’ve got the advantage of knowing this country in the dark; they don’t. I don’t think they plan on stopping until every last one of us is dead, and I think we’d better get our rumps out of here while we have the cover of darkness.”

“Yes, Captain,” Eldan said—he didn’t wander off in a trance when he Mindspoke with someone like his fellow Herald had, he simply frowned a little, as if he was concentrating. “Selenay and the Lord Marshal agree,” he said after a moment. “The foot is already moving out.”

“Fine,” She turned to Shallan. “Pass the order. The retreat is for real.”

And dear gods of my childhood, help us. Because we’re in dire need of it.

Twenty-three

It was a retreat, not a rout—but only because no one panicked. That retreat didn’t end with morning, either.

When dawn broke, Kero sent scouts back, more because she believed in being too cautious than because she really expected anything.

She knew there was trouble when they returned too quickly.

The first one in saluted her, his face gray with exhaustion. “They’re right behind us, Captain,” he croaked, as she handed him her own water skin. He gulped down a mouthful and poured the rest on his head. “I swear by Apponel, there’s no way they can be behind us, and they are anyway. Some of ’em are dropping like whipped dogs, but the rest are still on their feet and it don’t look like they plan on giving up any time soon.”

She swore and gathered the officers; hers, and Selen-ay’s and together they goaded their weary troopers into another push.

That set the pattern for succeeding days—and sometimes nights—as they retreated farther north, and deeper into Valdemar itself. Every step westward galled Kero like spurs in her side. Never before had she hated to give up land so much. Always before it had been a matter of indifference; what mattered was the final outcome, not whether a few fanners were overrun and burned out. But this time was different. The farmers pressed everything Selenay’s forces needed on them as they passed, then abandoned their farms with unshed tears making their eyes bright. She knew these farmers as people, however briefly they’d met, and it made her seethe with rage to see smoke rising in their rear and know what Ancar’s troops were doing to the abandoned properties.

Every time she took provisioning from another farmer, and watched him drive off into the west with family and whatever he could transport piled up onto pitiful little wagons with his stock herded behind him, the rage grew.

It’s so damned unfair, she told herself, And I know that life’s unfair, but these people never did anything to earn losses like these. She’d never felt quite so powerless to help, before.

And she had never hated any foe other than the Karsites with the fierce hatred she developed for Ancar.

The fool drove his men as if they were mindless machines. She couldn’t imagine why they weren’t deserting in droves—unless the mages were somehow controlling them, either directly or through fear. That might explain why the mages hadn’t attacked Selenay’s army—they were too busy keeping Ancar’s own troops in line. She was a good leader—and she couldn’t hate men who were being forced the way these were. But she certainly could hate the kind of man who forced them.

Or the kind of man who tortured for the sheer pleasure of it. Eldan told her what he’d done to Talia—and she’d felt Need waking during the tale, with that deep, gut-fire rage that was so hard to control. But Ancar wasn’t within reach, so the blade subsided; though for once, Kero agreed with it.

But most important of all, one of the other officers in Selenay’s army who had once lived in Hardorn told her what he had done to his father and his people, and why they had left. Kero had encountered tyrants before, but never one who so abused his powers as this one. The way he drove his men was a fair example of the way he treated his people as a whole. Worse than cattle, for a good farmer sees his cattle cared for.

She finally called her Company together one night when they dared have a fire, and told them everything she’d learned, figuring that they should know what would happen to them if they ever fell into Ancar’s hands.

They listened, quietly. Then Shallan made a single, flat statement for all of them. “He’s an oathbreaker,” she said, her mouth set in a grim line. “And he’s just lucky we haven’t a mage with us, or I’d set the full Outcasting on him.”

Kero looked from one fire-gilded face to another, and saw no sign of disagreement. Several, in fact, were nodding. The Guild was full of people with disparate and sometimes mutually antagonistic beliefs. The one thing every mercenary in the Guild commonly held sacred was an oath. They reserved terrible punishment for an oath-breaker in their own ranks. For rulers and priests there was another form of retribution—the Outcasting. Kings were bound by oaths to protect their lands and men, usually from the time they were old enough to swear to the pledges, and Ancar had broken his oaths—as surely, and as dreadfully, as had the late, unmourned, King Raschar of Rethwellan, the monarch Tarma and Kethry had helped to unseat. Kero learned that night that she was not alone in her hatred of Ancar—as her troops had heard more tales from the Hardorn refugees, one and all, they came to share her cold rage.

It gave them an extra edge they’d never had before. But rage was not enough, not when confronted with the desperate strength of Ancar’s men.

They were worn thin by running alone, and when you added the steady losses, manpower that wasn’t being replaced, you had another kind of drain on them.

Of course, Ancar was losing an equal number of men in those encounters, but Ancar could afford to lose them. Selenay’s army couldn’t.

Kero tried an ambush at one point, splitting her forces on either side of a river hoping to catch him with a good part of his men still in the water. But she’d discovered, only through the vigilance of the scouts, that he had outflanked her.

He brought his foot in to surround the ambush-party on his bank and only years of experience had enabled her to get them out again. Those years of experience had taught her to always have an escape route—in this case, an unlikely one, the river itself. Profiting from her escape by water, she’d engineered a more controlled version of the same, by making sure the ambushers were all strong and experienced swimmers, with horses capable of pulling the trick off.

Even so, the escape had been a narrow one, and their luck ran down from there.

Every day meant a succession of tricks and guerrilla tactics, just to keep Ancar from closing with the entire force and finishing the job. With the Heralds acting as links between them, they split their forces by day, pecking away at the edges of the massive army, and rejoined by night. The individual groups, some as small as Kero’s original scout group, could dart in and out to whittle away at Ancar’s more cumbersome foot—but to offset that mobility, they were a great deal more vulnerable. Quite a few of those little groups vanished, Herald and all, when Ancar’s troops could surround or entrap them.

Every loss meant far more to them than a comparable loss meant to Ancar—if, in fact, the losses meant anything to him at all, other than the drop in manpower.

“I can’t believe this,” she muttered to Eldan, as she shaded her eyes and stared at Ancar’s army, a dark carpet of them covering the fields below her vantage point, trampling the fields of new grain into mud. They should have been ready to drop; they’d been marching at a steady pace all day, and any sane commander would have them making camp now. Yet here they were, pressing on though sunset painted the sky a bloody red. “I thought I’d planned for everything, including the very worst possible case, but these people aren’t human. No one can follow the pace we’ve set—”

“You did,” Eldan pointed out. “You set it.”

She glared sideways at him; she had a headache from wearing her helmet all day, and she was in no mood for quibbling. “Semantics. We’re on home ground; we have the advantage of local support and supply, and we know the territory. He doesn’t have any of that. He shouldn’t be able to keep up with us, much less attack every chance he gets. But he’s doing it, and I’ll be damned if I know how.”

“Because he’s willing to sacrifice everything to get you—or rather, Selenay,” Eldan said flatly. “Everything is expendable if he gets her. He’s perfectly willing to burn out every man he has to achieve that single goal.”

She shook her head, and pounded her fist on the tree trunk beside her in anger and frustration, gashing the bark with her armored gauntlet. “That’s insane. I can’t predict what a madman is going to do next! How can I plan against someone like that?”

Eldan sighed. “I don’t know, Captain. Strategy was never anything I was good at.” Then he smiled weakly.

“But you’ll think of something, I’m sure. We all believe in you.”

That was cold comfort. They believe in me. Just what I needed to hear.

Especially when she was exercising all of her ingenuity just to keep them alive a little bit longer. They’d lost track of Daren a while back, and not even the FarSeers could find him. In fact, other than the Mindspeakers, the Heralds’ powers had been frustrated or limited by Ancar’s mages. There was some kind of shield over the army that the FarSeers couldn’t break through, and the ForeSeers reported only “too many possibilities.”

There were only three possibilities that made any difference to Kero; that Daren was still on schedule, that Daren had been turned back by more of Ancar’s forces, or that Daren had run afoul of those same forces and was late. No other “possibilities” mattered.

And right now, anyway, all that really mattered was staying alive.

The question haunted her as the Skybolts stopped to salt a ford with flint shards after everyone else had passed it. The little fragments were heavy enough to stay where they were without washing downstream, small and sharp enough to lodge in hooves and slash boots and feet to ribbons. “ ‘Be careful what you ask for,’ “ she quoted to herself. “ ‘You might get it.’ I wanted Ancar to follow us. Now I can’t shake him off our trail.” When she’d consulted the Lord Marshal through the agency of Eldan and the Lord Marshal’s Herald, he hadn’t had any suggestions either. I feel like I’m letting them down, she thought grimly, as the last of the flint-strewers returned to the saddle, and the Company moved out again. They think I’m going to pull something brilliant out of my sleeve and save everyone. Not even Ardana got herself into a situation like this one. And while he lasted, Lerryn was so lucky he’d fall into a cesspit and come up with a handful of gold.

She looked back over her shoulder, checking for strays, although technically Shallan and Geyr were supposed to be in charge of that. It didn’t look as if any of her people had dropped out of the march—though if they hadn’t been mounting Shin’a’in-breds, they would have been by now. Even the Companions were beginning to look tired. So far the only luck we’ve had was that Ancar hasn’t used a mage since I took out the first one.

She pushed her helm up and rubbed a spot on her forehead where it pressed uncomfortably. That might not have been luck, though; it might have been that Need was sheltering the whole army, and it might also have been that the mages Ancar has left are required to keep his own people disciplined. She wished she knew which it was; or even if it was a combination.

The Skybolts caught up with the rearguard of Selenay’s troops, and became the rearguard themselves. Shallan and Geyr sent back outriders, while the rest spread themselves along the rear, resting their horses by staying at the pace set by the foot in front of them. Kero hoped the outriders would bring back word that Ancar had camped soon. Those poor souls ahead of her looked as though they were on their last gasp of energy.

All that work to get the entire army together, and we’re too small to do anything but run. He must outnumber us ten to one, and that’s after losses. About the only advantage we have is the Heralds. We’re too large and without the proper training to use as a specialist force, and too small to actually take a stand against him.

It was maddening, and soon enough they’d run up against the Iftel border, which would leave them with nowhere to go except into Valdemar. Was Daren back there behind them? If not—and she had to plan for the worst—if they retreated, would Selenay be able to raise enough of the common people to make a difference against trained fighters? It could be done, what had happened to the Skybolts in Seejay was proof enough of that—but it was expensive in terms of casualties, the people had to be committed to it wholeheartedly.

If only we could get him to divide his army up somehow, and arrange things so that we could deal with each segment alone.

A foot soldier in front of her stumbled and fell, saw Hellsbane practically on top of him, and blanched, scrambling onto his feet and back to his place in the wavering lines. The mare’s behavior in battle had earned her the reputation of a mankilling horse, and no one but the Skybolts wanted to be within range of those teeth and hooves.

What have we got ahead of us? I wonder if there’s some way I can force him to commit too many of his people on too many fronts? Can we use the terrain somehow?

No, that was a stupid idea. The only thing they had ahead of them was farmland and rolling hills.

She pulled off her helm and hung it on the saddlebow, and wiped the sweat out of them. It didn’t help. She’d never been so tired, not even when running from Karsite priestesses and Karsite demons.

If only my riders weren’t forced to stay with the foot....

Then again, maybe they weren’t.

If we take the Skybolts and the cavalry and circle around behind them, I wonder if we could make them think we were reinforcements ... make them think we were Daren’s lot.

The she gave herself a mental kick for idiocy. How in hell can I think that? It would leave them without support. And even if he fell for it, that would get him going in the wrong direction. That won’t work. We don’t want him going south, and we certainly don’t want him going west.

Every new idea seemed to have less chance of succeeding than the last. And none of them were going to work if they didn’t get a chance to rest!

I feel like a hunted stag, she thought—then froze as she realized that she wasn’t far wrong with that image.

She made a quick mental review of everything Ancar had done since that first encounter, and realized with a sinking heart that they had been doing exactly what he wanted them to do. Run. Run themselves into exhaustion....

“What’s wrong?” Eldan had ridden up beside her without her even noticing his arrival.

“I just realized we made a monumental mistake,” she replied slowly, as her spine chilled. “We all thought we were leading him. We haven’t been. He’s been herding us, like stags being herded by beaters.” She looked around for one of the scout Lieutenants, and spotted Shallan’s blonde cap of hair. “Shallan!” she called sharply; the scout-leader looked back, and reined her horse around, sending him loping wearily toward them.

“I want you to send out scouts west and east,” she said as soon as Shallan was within easy speaking distance. “Send them out about a half a day’s ride, on their freshest horses. Have them take Heralds; if what I think is out there really is, I want to know immediately.”

Shallan looked thoughtful for a moment—then blanched. “We’ve been bracketed?” she asked, as her horse stood listlessly, saving his energy.

Kero nodded, and looked back over her shoulder, feeling as if she half-expected the enemy to come into view. “I think so. I couldn’t figure out where his cavalry was, and I’d just about decided he didn’t have any. But if I had his resources, why would I field only foot fighters with less than a Company of cavalry? Now I think I know where he sent them—to bracket us in either the east or the west. I’d bet east, but I want you to check inside Valdemar just to be sure. In all the confusion caused by evacuation he could have slipped someone in.”

“Astera help us, if you’re right,” Eldan said grimly as Shallan rode off to pick her scouts and send them on their way. He, too, looked back over his shoulder, with a grimace. “He’ll have us where we planned to have him—pinned between him and the Iftel Border.”

“I know,” she replied, watching as two small groups of Skybolts broke off from the main body and rode off east and west. “Believe me, I know. I’d give my arm to know where Daren is right now—and my leg to have him close enough to help.”

We must be halfway to Iftel by now. Gods, I don’t know how much more of this dying territory there is—Daren flexed cramped fingers, wiping the nervous sweat from his face with his sleeve, and stared up at the sun. He reined his gelding in a little to drop back beside one of the few unarmored riders in the group. “How far past the Valdemar Border would you say we are?” he asked young Quenten, who frowned a little, and unfocused his eyes. “Last thing I want is for Ancar’s toadies to scent us.”

“Far enough,” the mage replied after a moment. “We’re out of range of whatever it is in Valdemar, and Ancar’s mages are too busy keeping the troops under control to try looking for us. That’s devilish clever of him, keeping his mages just this side of the Border; I don’t know what that guardian is, m’lord, but it’s cursed literal-minded. Your magic can cross the Border all you like, so long as you don’t. And I ’spect that if you didn’t ever do anything magical, once you were inside, it’d leave you alone.”

“I suspect you’re right,” Daren replied. Quenten’s a good lad. Wish I knew how Kero managed to recruit him. “And I’m damned glad you went looking for us on your way back to your winter quarters. If we’d followed along the short route, we’d have lost our mages, too.”

“I didn’t want to leave them in the first place, m’lord,” Quenten said absently. “Let the gods witness it, I’d have stayed if I could! It only seemed right to track you down and warn you, and maybe come with you if you figured a way around the magic problem.” His gentle little mare glided along beside Daren’s tall hunter, the only horse he’d ever seen besides his own that could trot without jolting her rider. Daren kept silent, wrestling with the problem of how to make up the days lost in crossing over to Hardorn, sneaking through the passes and hoping the Karsites would choose to ignore this little invasion of their borders. He’d had double his usual complement of mages to cloak their movements, but who knew what the Karsite priests could and could not do.

Perhaps they had their own troubles to occupy them. Since the defeat of the Prophet there had been no more trouble from Karse; only rumors that the Temple was engaging in a war of intrigue within itself, and more rumors that the Chief Priest of the Sunlord was being challenged for his place by a woman. That was heresy enough, but further rumor had it that this woman affected the robes and false beard of a man, and styled herself the “True-born Son of the Sun.” If even half those rumors were true, small wonder Karse paid no attention to the army of her old enemy, when it was plainly going elsewhere.

But once across the border into Hardorn, Daren had been tempted to turn right around and take his chances with Valdemar and this mysterious “guardian” that drove mages mad. For from the border to a distance of three leagues within Hardorn, the land was blighted and empty.

Bad enough that entire villages lay empty and abandoned; worse came when his men poked cautiously through the tumbled-down buildings. The places had been looted, then demolished. But in the wreckage, Daren’s men found the remains of women and children—and only women and children, and only those younger than three, and (presumably) older than thirty.

Daren had thought at first that it might have been the work of bandits—but then they had encountered another village, smaller than the first, that had fared the same. Then another, and another.

After the fourth such discovery, Daren forbade his men to even go near the places. They had no priest with them, but the mages, Quenten in particular, had felt an odd uneasiness there, and the Healers had refused, in a hysterical body, to set foot inside the perimeters.

And the land itself looked drained and ill. The rank weeds that had taken over the fields were pale, with thin, weak stems. The leaves of the trees were discolored. The only birds to be seen were an occasional crow, and so far Daren hadn’t spotted so much as a rabbit moving. It had been getting worse since the first village, and now the countryside looked to his eyes like a beautiful woman lying ravaged by plague. He couldn’t imagine how his men could bear it—many of them were of farm stock, and intended to retire to little pension-farms of their own, and to see good land like this must be making them ill.

“What do you think happened here?” he asked Quenten, as they crossed a muddy, rust-colored stream. “Is it safe to be riding on this land, do you think?”

“It’s safe enough, m’lord,” Quenten said, but only after the mage gave him a peculiar look. “Why do you ask?”

Daren looked around at the withered limbs of the trees, at the yellow grass, at the diseased cankers spotting the leaves, and shuddered. “Because the place looks poisoned, that’s why. What happened at the villages was easy enough to read—that bastard conscripted the men, took the useful women and little ones and slaughtered the rest as an example—but I don’t understand this ... and I don’t see how the men can accept it as easily as they do.”

Quenten shook his head in wonder. “M’lord, they don’t see what you see. To them it looks perfectly ordinary, except that there’s not much in the way of birds and beasts.” He looked pointedly about them, at the men marching calmly up the road in front of them, and tilted his shaggy, dust-dulled head to one side, as if waiting for a response.

Daren cast a sharp glance at him, but the young mage’s expression was entirely sober. “A glamour? An illusion?”

Again the mage shook his head, but this time he stared into Daren’s face searchingly before replying. “I don’t think so, m’lord. Is there mage-blood in your family?”

“Some, not much,” he said after a moment of thought. “Of course Grandmother’s family’s been sprouting Healers every so often, and Mother’s line was supposed to be some kind of earth-priestess—”

“Ah,” Quenten said in satisfaction. “That would be it; you have the earth-sense. Many folk with the blood of the old earth-priestesses in them have it. What you’re seeing is the land revealed to you by the earth-sense, you see what lies under the surface everyone else sees with his outer eyes. This land is sick; there’s been blood-magic practiced here, too much of it for the land to absorb without harm. That was the real horror back at those villages; it wasn’t just the slaughter itself—it’s that it was done to invoke the powers of blood-magic and death-magic.”

Daren remembered all the rumors he’d heard about Ancar, and suddenly they began making sense. “Blood-magic to control the minds of the ones he took?” he asked shrewdly, “Blood-magic to create a reservoir of power he can feed off?” And Quenten’s eyes widened. “Blood-magic so that the land keeps him healthy and young, at its own expense?”

“There’s not one highborn in ten that would know that,” the mage whispered. “Keep it to yourself, m’lord. There’s some that would say that knowing is a short step away from wanting. I don’t hold by that, but even the mage-schools have their fanatics.” He resumed his normal tone. “Probably, m’lord, and it’s more than the land can bear. That’s why it looks sick to you. Trust your earth-sense, m’lord. If you learn to use it, it’ll tell you more than just this.”

It was Daren’s turn to shake his head. The land cried out to him in a way—and he couldn’t help it, any more than he could bring back those poor slaughtered innocents. He wanted to beg its pardon for not healing it—to beg theirs for not being there. It was foolish—but it was very real. He understood the Heralds of Valdemar far better than his brother did. He understood how it was to care for people, even if those people were not bound to you, personally, in any way. Faram would die for his people—but not those of Valdemar. He would feel badly about the slaughters here, but he would not feel them personally, the way Daren did.

And he also understood duty and pledges. “Right now all I care about is whether this land is safe to travel through—which you say it is—and whether or not Ancar has any mages likely to detect us here.”

“We’re working to prevent that, m’lord,” Quenten replied dryly. “And—” he looked up, sharply.

“What is it?” Daren said, reining in his horse as Quenten’s mount stopped dead.

The mage raised one hand to his forehead, his eyes focusing elsewhere. He looked for all the world as if he was listening to something. “Quenten?” Daren persisted. “Quenten?”

The mage’s eyes refocused on him. “Ancar has a reserve force just ahead,” he said vaguely. “Several mages, and three companies of cavalry. And—Daren, m’lord, they’re mostly from here, this barren zone.”

“Controlled, then. There’s no other way he could make fanners into cavalry that quickly” He caught the attention of his officers, who halted the march. “Quenten, how far ahead is ‘just ahead’?”

“Half a day’s march, maybe less. Not much less.” Quenten didn’t seem to notice Daren’ sigh of relief.

“What are they doing there?” he persisted. “We haven’t seen a sign of Ancar’s army. What are reserves doing out here?”

“I don’t—they’re—I need my bowl.” Without warning, the mage scrambled off his mare’s back to dig into her packs. He emerged with a completely black bowl, shiny, made of black glass, or something very like it. He poured water from his own water skin into the bottom of it, sat right down in the dust of the road, and stared into it.

Daren had been around enough mages to know when to keep his mouth shut. He waited, patiently, in sunlight too thin to even warm him. The army waited, just as patiently, glad for a chance to sit by the roadside and rest. Daren watched his men sprawling ungracefully against their packs, and wished he hadn’t had to push them so hard. They’d had a lot of time to make up, once they’d gotten down out of the hills. He had been weary at the end of the day, and he was riding. He hated to think what the foot soldiers felt like.

“They’re waiting,” Quenten said, in a thin, disinterested voice, an eerie echo of his own thoughts “They are half of the claw that will capture Selenay and crush Valdemar. “

“What?” Daren snapped, startled.

Quenten looked up, blinking, then picked up the bowl and spilled the water out in the dust. “Ancar has these reserves out here, pacing him, waiting for when he has Selenay’s forces worn down enough to trap,” the mage said in a more normal tone of voice. “Then he’ll have this lot sweep in from the side and above while he cuts his main force in from below.”

“I don’t think so,” Daren replied, in a kind of grim satisfaction at finally having something to fight.

“Well, that’s not all, m’lord,” Quenten added as he got up, shook the dust from his robes and stowed his bowl carefully away. “It’s who these reserves are—or rather, where they’re from. Like I said, before, here. Tied into obedience by the blood of their own kin. Now, you have the earth-sense; you could tell me which mage is controlling them, because the earth hereabouts would tell you. It hates him, and it’s bound to him, and you’ll see him as it sees him.”

“And what will happen when you break him?” Daren asked, leaning forward in his saddle and clutching the pommel with one hand. “How do I do see these things, anyway? What do you need to teach me, and have we the time to spare?”

Quenten paused to remount, and turned to look back at Daren only when firmly in his seat. “You have the earth-sense,” Quenten repeated. “It’s a matter of instinct rather than learning. Break the controlling mage and you not only free the victims—but it’s altogether possible the earth hereabouts would rise up in revolt. And it would listen to you, follow some of your directions, if you made them simple enough.”

“It would?”

Quenten nodded. Daren thought about those heaps of pitiful bones and rags—looked around him at the dying land. And thought of Kero and Selenay’s army, and pledges. And just maybe a god somewhere had just gifted him with the chance to satisfy all of them.

“Quenten, you’re in charge of the magic-folk; get your mages. Find out everything you can, and keep us cloaked.” Daren turned his horse and rode off in search of the scouts before he had a chance to hear Quenten’s eager assent.

All right, Ancar, you bastard, he couldn’t help thinking, with a kind of fierce exultation. I am about to visit a little retribution on you and yours.

Ancar’s reserves were pathetically unaware of any danger—but after all, they were deep inside their own territory, and had no reason to suspect any threat. Daren himself went out with the scouts to the river-valley where they camped to get a good look at enemy, and at the way they were conducting themselves.

What he saw fit in very well with Quenten’s theory of mind-control. Only about a quarter of the men down there were moving about or acting in any kind of a normal fashion. The rest might as well have been puppets; in fact, watching them was rather disturbing. They moved listlessly, when they moved at all, and none of them were idle—yet they wasted no time on their chores, picking up one task, carrying it to the end, picking up another. And all without exchanging a single word with anyone, or taking a single step out of the way. Nothing was cooked, except at the camps of the officers; a small group of men handed out the tasteless ration-bread Rethwellan no longer used because of complaints from the men. These fighters took the bread, ate it methodically, and went back to their chores.

By nightfall, the camp was utterly quiet. No socializing around campfires, no idle games of chance—nothing. The men simply rolled up in their blankets, and went to sleep; except for the officers and mages, who had tents, and were presumably doing things inside them. It was an entirely unnerving sight to someone who knew what a camp should look and sound like, because of the complete unnaturalness of it—although Daren had to admit to himself that there were times when he’d wished his men would—

He stopped the thought before he could complete it, chillingly aware of how close he’d come to thinking that he’d wanted his men to be like this. Was that what those mages meant, when they said it was a short step from knowing to wanting?

Horrible thought....

He closed his eyes on the too-quiet camp below him for a moment, then opened them. No, he deliberately decided. I’ve never wanted that. It’s worse than slavery; at least a slave has his own thoughts. These poor creatures don’t even have that much. It’s as bad to destroy or enslave a mind as it is to kill a body. Maybe worse, if the mind is aware of what has happened to it.

The scout tugged at his sleeve, and he crawled away with the rest of them, avoiding the slack-jawed perimeter guard. They made it back to the rest of his troops without further incident, and he and his officers spent the hours until midnight charting the next day’s course.

Dawn of the next day saw the Rethwellan troops poised just above the camp. It had been impossible to keep the movement of so large a group secret, but by splitting his troops in two and cutting off Ancar’s fighters from their easy escape by river, Daren had forced Ancar’s reserves to meet him instead of running to join the larger force, or escaping into the interior of Hardorn.

Daren waited at the command post with Quenten, the other mages, and his under-officers; far from being even as comfortable as a tent, the site basically had only two things to recommend it: The unobstructed view, and a very tall shade tree.

“Can you tell who he is, yet?” Quenten asked in an undertone as the officers scattered off to take their places with their men.

Daren shook his head. There was a kind of sink of “bad feeling” a little to the right of center, but no one mage stood out. They were assuming that Ancar’s mages were too strong for any single one of Daren’s mages to take. They would have to wait for their one best opportunity, and all hit him at once, in order to break him.

One of Daren’s mages was effectively out of the picture; he was preventing the enemy from calling for help, at least magically. And that was all he was good for; they’d left him in trance in the Healer’s tent, and there he would stay even after this was over, recovering. Or not; there was always the possibility he might die, either from exhausting himself, or being drained or killed by the enemy mages. And if Daren’s force lost, he would almost certainly die. Mages were harder to control than captured fighters; the enemy usually did not even bother to try.

Daren gave the signal to advance, no point in a charge; mind-controlled men would not be unnerved by a charge or a battle cry. They’d simply fight until they dropped, and others took their places. Daren had given his officers careful instructions: keep the men in formation, no hero-tactics, fight as carefully as if it was all a drill. The one advantage to fighting mind-controlled men was that they were slower; it was the difference between knowing what to do and being told what to do—between learned reflex, and something that hasn’t been absorbed bone-deep yet.

The battle was, as a result, curiously, grimly dull. No flag waving, no shouts except for exclamations of pain, no charges—the only sounds being those calls and the clash of weapons, the cries of horses, the scuffling of hundreds of feet and hooves—the men might as well have been those little counters he and Kero used to practice maneuvers with. Except for the blood, the wounded, the fallen. Those made it real, and made the fighting itself all the more unreal.

Daren concentrated on the mages, clustered near the officers’ command post, and visible because of the dull colors of their robes, which were bright compared with the brown and buff leathers of the fighters and officers. But the more he concentrated, the less he seemed to see. He started to get angry and frustrated—my people are dying down there—but then he stopped himself, before he stormed off to harangue Quenten.

This is my problem, not his. I should be able to figure it out. Quenten said this earth-sense works like instinct, he thought, finally. So—maybe if I don’t concentrate....

I used to wonder what on earth good those meditation exercises Tarma insisted we both learn would do me. I thought if there was anything more useless

I can almost hear her now. “Surprise, youngling. Nothing’s ever wasted.

He closed his eyes and dredged the exercise out of deepest memory. It wasn’t as hard as he’d thought it was foing to be, for in moments he was relaxed. He centered himself in the earth beneath his feet, as Tarma had taught him, and when he felt as if he was truly an extension of it, opened his eyes—

And nearly choked. He’d never, ever seen anything like this before—and if it hadn’t been that he felt fine, and had shared the same rations as everyone else this morning, he’d have suspected sickness or drugs. Superimposed over the fighting, the battlefield was divided into fields of glowing, healthy green, and dull, dead, leprous white, with edges of scarlet and vermilion where they met. Outside the area of fighting, the landscape was the same as it had been all the way north—sickly greens, poisoned yellows.

Except for one spot, behind the lines, in the ranks of the mages and commanders—one spot of black, auraed by angry red.

“Get Quenten,” he told his aide. “We’ve got them.”

Eleven of the twelve mages materialized beside him so quickly he suspected they’d conjured themselves there. “Where is he?” Quenten said—then shook his head as Daren started to open his mouth to explain that he couldn’t tell him. “Never mind, I know, I’m being stupid. Hadli, would—”

A dark-haired, plump girl reached up and touched both his temples before he could say or do anything. “Got him, Quenten,” she said in satisfaction. “If you want to feed through me, I’m not much use for anything else right now.”

“What are you going to do?” Daren asked anxiously. “I mean, I don’t want you to go blasting at him and hit our people.”

“Not a chance. Kero likes things subtle. We figured out last night that we get the same effect by killing or wounding him physically—he’ll still lose his hold on the magic and on the minds he’s controlling.”

“So I’m going to give them the way to identify him,” Hadli said. “Quenten will bowl-cast a FarSeeing spell, and Gem and Myrqan will find a weapon to hit him with, while the rest distract him and keep his defenses all facing forward.”

Daren turned; Quenten was already kneeling on the ground with his bowl of water in front of him—but this time there was a picture forming in it that even he could see.

Hadli and two others knelt beside him, and Daren found that he could still see over their heads. What he saw was the backs of several people in robes, with coruscating colors and strange shapes appearing just beyond them. His eyes went to one in a dull blue robe, and he saw, faintly, the same overlay of black and scarlet auras he’d “seen” before.

“That’s him,” Hadli said. “The one in the blue, with the copper belt and the serpent-glyph on his sleeve.”

“Daren,” Quenten called, without taking his attention from the bowl, “When we strike him, you’ll feel it in the earth. There’s going to be a moment of recoil, and then a hesitation. That is when you need to concentrate on what, exactly, you want to happen. There’s a lot of power there; think of it as a flash flood about to roll down the river. Once you get it started, you won’t be able to get it to stop or even change directions. If you don’t know what to do—don’t think of anything.

Daren refrained from making a sarcastic answer. In the bowl, a light, ornamental dagger was elevating from a table behind the mages. Before he had a chance to ask what that meant, the thing snapped forward as if it had been thrown, and buried itself to the hilt in Blue-robe’s back.

Daren had been in an earthquake, once. The feeling was similar. For a moment, the earth seemed to drop out beneath him, and he was left hanging in space, with a sense that something huge and ponderous was poised over him, like a wave, waiting to break.

Belatedly, he recalled Quenten’s orders, and realized the impossibility of not thinking anything. Make it simple. Dear gods, it’s going to let go—and I don t know what to tell it

Make it simple.

Put everything back the way it was!

The wave broke. He swayed, and started to fall, when his aide caught him. And suddenly, there was noise out on the battlefield.

The sound of several thousand enraged, half-mad men, turning on their officers and tearing them to pieces.

Twenty-four

Bodies pressed in on all sides of her. Gods. Blessed Agnira. I got them into this. They trust me to get them out of it. How do I tell them that I can’t? The camp was unusually silent; somewhere on the Valdemar side, Selenay, too, was breaking the bad news to her troops. The regulars, that is; the Heralds already knew about it, of course. Kero wanted to look away from all those eyes staring at her with perfect confidence, to gaze up at the sky or down at the ground—anywhere but back at them. They depended on me, and I fouled up. Now what do I say? “I‘m sorry?”

Instead, she gazed directly back at them all, trying to meet each pair of eyes before she spoke to them. “I haven’t got any good news,” she told them, finally. “Ancar’s fighters have managed to force us east enough for his southernmost troops to divide and get in west of us. They’re doing that now, and we haven’t been able to stop them. He’s had cavalry to the east in his own lands that has probably moved in north as well. We’ve been bracketed, and now we’re surrounded.”

She waited for a moment for that to sink in, then continued, rubbing the back of her neck. “They outnumber us by a goodly amount. Selenay’s troops tried this morning to prevent the southern forces from coming west, but there were too many for them, and the farmers just aren’t a match for trained fighters, not in pitched battles. It looks like the big confrontation is coming tomorrow; he has us right where he wants us, and no getting around it.”

She listened to them breathe for a moment. “Where’s Lord Daren?” asked a voice from the rear. Kero looked up, above the heads of those nearest her, and attempted to find the questioner.

“We lost track of him about the time he was going to cross over into the Valdemar side of the Comb, somewhere in the mountains. We don’t know what happened to him. There’s been no word of him coming up through Valdemar like he was supposed to. He could be on the way. He could have been turned back. He could have been defeated by Ancar down in the mountains. We just don’t know, so we can’t count on him being here.”

Much less being here in time. That’s the way ballads end, not real battles. They’d been in trouble before, but never this badly, and never while under her command. The weight of responsibility made her ache,

“Now, here’s what we can do,” she continued. “We’re mounted, and we’re the best hit-and-hide specialists in the business. We can break out, leave this mess behind, and head back down home. There isn’t a soul outside Valdemar that would blame us for doing that. We’re not in this for glory, or for patriotism, or because we’re fanatics.” She looked around again, and saw heads nodding. “We’re in this for the money, purely and simply, and our Guild Charter and our contract allows for this sort of thing. Ancar threw the Guild out; we know he isn’t going to accept a Code surrender from us. Probably what he’d do if we tried is kill us out of hand. He might even stick to killing the officers only, and mind-controlling you troops. I don’t think I have to go any further into that.”

She noticed one or two nearest her shuddering at the idea, and nodded to herself.

“As I said, the Code and the Charter allow for that. We can break out and go home; this is a no-win, hopeless situation. However—we won’t be able to take any wounded with us, and anyone who goes down on the way out stays behind. My guess is we’ll lose about half of our troops—the ones that are left—getting out. It’s not going to be easy, but staying here means worse odds, so far as I can tell.”

“What are the Heralds doing?” asked one of the Lieutenants. “They’re mounted, and they’re as good as we are, most of ’em.”

“Good question,” Kero replied. “They’re going to break Selenay out, if they can. It’s by no means certain; Ancar wants her hide, and if he finds out they’re breaking her loose, he’ll bring everything to bear that he has. We can use that as a diversion, of course, which makes our chances better.”

“Then what?” asked the same voice as before. “Then they’re going to turn back and rejoin the fight,” she replied, as neutrally as she could. “All but an escort force to get Selenay to safe ground.”

A murmur of surprise and admiration rose from the troopers. Some of the Heralds—Eldan, for instance—had made themselves very popular; others, like the one Eldan had replaced, were considered nuisances. But the Skybolts could not help but admire anyone with the kind of guts it took to break free of a suicide-situation, then turn and go back into it.

“That has little or nothing to do with us,” Kero reminded them forcefully. “We’re mercenaries. They aren’t. They have oaths to fulfill, and duties that they won’t renege on. We’re in this for pay. Now, the Skybolts have never been an ordinary Company, and I’ve never been an ordinary Captain. That’s why I’ve called you all here. I’m not going to make a decision like this one alone, or even with my officers. Do we try to go, or do we stay? And do I stay your Captain—”

The shouts of disapproval that met that question made her feel terribly self-conscious. “All right,” she bellowed at last, holding up her hands for silence. “All right, if you want me that badly, you’ve got me. But the other question—break out, or stay and do what we can? You know the drill; dark-colored pebble for ‘go,’ light or white for ‘stay.’ And no maybe-colored rocks, either—I don’t want any maybes on this one. Geyr will collect your votes.”

She turned and sat down, waiting for the results of the vote, keeping her mind tightly sealed against their thoughts. She didn’t want to know what they were thinking, and she didn’t want to influence it, either.

She tried not to think of anything, really. As Geyr moved out with the basket into the massed fighters someone else called out a question. “What about you?”

“I’ll be going with you, since you’ll have me,” she said. “And I’ll stay with you as far as Bolthaven; I intend to call another vote then, and see if you still want me when this is over. I have my responsibilities as much as these Heralds have, and my oaths have been made to you. I don’t intend to break them.”

She heard the murmurs, saw the looks, and knew what they were thinking as well as if she had opened her mind to them. They all knew about Eldan—quite a few of them knew about their first meeting, ten years ago. They knew what she would be sacrificing by leading them if they voted to break out, or at least they thought they did.

She ignored the murmurs, and kept her expression schooled into serenity. I made my oaths, I have my responsibilities. He knows that. It doesn’t hurt any less—but there’s no choice. Vows are made to be kept, and he would be the first one to agree.

Finally Geyr brought the basket around to her, and she steeled herself against the inevitable. How could they not vote to save themselves? Only a fool would stay here and die. So, I’m a fool. But it isn’t just Eldan.... True, the odds were only fifty-fifty that any of them would make it out in the clear, and those weren’t good odds—but when had a youngster ever thought he couldn’t beat the odds?

Then Geyr turned the basket upside-down on the table—

And she felt her mouth dropping open in shock.

A pile—a tiny mountain of white. Pale sandstone pebbles trickled down off the top with a gentle clicking sound. She spread the pebbles out on the table with a shaking hand. No dark pebbles, none at all.

They’d stay, fighting beside the Valdemar folk. No dissenting votes.

She looked up at them, searched each face she could see, and found nothing there but determination. “You’re mad,” she said, flatly. “You’re all of you mad. We haven’t a chance if we stay.”

Shallan stood up, awkwardly, as if she’d been appointed as spokesperson for the entire Company. “We don’t think so, beggin’ your pardon, Captain. ’Sides, what’s the odds of a merc livin’ long enough to collect his pension from the Guild, eh? We all got to talking about this last night. General feeling is, these people here deserve help. Merc’s likely to go down any time—but if we got a choice in goin’ down, I’d rather do it for somebody that deserves a hand, than in fightin’ for some pig-merchant workin’ out a fight over territory with some other hog, an’ doin’ it with my sword an’ my life.”

There was a murmur of agreement from the rest, and an “Aye, that!” or two from the veterans old enough in service to remember Ardana and the Seejay debacle.

Kero rose slowly to her feet, and to Shallan’s immense surprise, embraced her. She kept one arm around her old friend, as she scanned their faces again, this time with her eyes burning with the effort of holding back tears. “You’re all fools, thank the gods,” she said huskily. “Every one of you. As much fools as me—if you’d voted me out, I’d have stayed myself. All right, Skybolts. We stay. And tomorrow, we show Ancar what it means to take on the finest Company in the Guild!”

The cheers could probably have been heard in Haven.

And no one would ever guess, she thought, with a mixture of pride and sorrow, that they’re cheering their own deaths. Poor, brave fools.

This will probably be our last battle. It’s ten to one it’ll be mine. May the gods help us all.

Daren stared into the stranger’s flat, dead eyes, and asked in frustration, “So what am I supposed to do with you?”

The tent was hot and felt stuffy, yet every time Daren looked at this man, he got a chill down the back of his neck. Better dead, he’d have been better off dead. Poor bastard.

“Lead us, m’lor’,” replied the nameless man, who until a year ago had been a simple fanner, with no cares of who ruled and who did not. “Lead us. We got nothin’, now. Our families is dead, or as good as. Our homes is gone. Our fields is weeds an’ wild things. Lead us.”

“Thrice-dead Horneth,” Daren muttered under his breath. Lead them, he says. Farmers on horseback. Whatever cavalry skills they had vanished when the mage controlling them died. And here I am, with a horde of undisciplined, half-mad farmers with no memory of what to do with swords and lances.

And yet—they were half-mad, and had nothing to lose. Ancar had stolen everything from them, including their names, for none of them remembered exactly who he was. All they had left were the memories of what had been done to them, and to their loved ones, memories so hedged about in rage that nothing the mages could do would erase them, and so those memories had been blocked off until Daren had given the fateful, desperate command to the earth—put everything back the way it was.

Some things, of course, were impossible; the dead could not be brought back to life, nor memories that had been destroyed be regained. But the troops’ minds had been given back to them, and the land was already beginning to heal, free of Ancar’s bondage.

Professionals are predictable,” ran one of Tarma’s proverbs. “But the world is full of amateurs.” So long as he kept his troops out of their way, where was the harm in taking these men with him and unleashing them on Ancar’s forces?

“Let me think about this,” he temporized, “I’m not sure I have the right to lead you. You’re not my people, and frankly, you may not like my orders. If I don’t have any real hold over you, you could decide to strike out on your own, and then where would my plans be?”

“But—” the man began, when he was interrupted by the arrival of Quenten. The mage was excited, his red hair going in all directions, and he made matters worse by running his hand through it every few moments.

“My lord, we intercepted a mage-message from Ancar’s commander a few moments ago,” he said. “We—”

Then he noticed the nameless man sitting there, and shut his mouth with a snap.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Daren said to the man, who, with the intractable stubbornness of farmers everywhere, opened his mouth to resume his argument—or voice a protest at the interruption. “I promise I’ll come back to you with an answer, but I suspect that what this man has to say will make up my mind, one way or another.”

Before the farmer could say another word, Daren took Quenten’s elbow and led him out of the tent, to a few paces away where they couldn’t be overheard.

“Now, what was this message?” he asked, “And is there any chance that Ancar’s people could know it was you that got it, and not his own mages?”

“Hildre,” Quenten said in satisfaction. “She’s the best there is at identifying and counterfeiting mage-auras. Unfortunately for her, that’s about all she can do—which means she’s useless outside of a group. But for working within a group, she’s priceless. The commander inside Valdemar sent a conventional messenger to the mages on the Border, and they sent the message on here—and trust me, Hildre has them convinced it went to the right person. They’re attacking Selenay at dawn, my lord. He’s sent half of his foot around to the west, and he expects the cavalry to come in on the east and north. Kero and the Skybolts are in the middle of that. We have to do something!”

Daren took a deep breath and stared off at a tree, reviewing all his plans and his capabilities. My foot won’t make it before the fight’s over. There’s no way they can make a march that’s half a day’s ride away in less than a day. And even if we started now, they’d be tired—

unless

“Thank you, Quenten,” he said, his plan set. “We’ll do something, all right. With luck, we’ll even get there in time. Tell the mages to get packed up; we’ll be on the march in a candlemark.”

He returned to his tent, and as he expected, the nameless spokesman for the farmers-turned-fighters was still there. “M’lor—” the man said, getting to his feet, his chest puffed out belligerently.

“How many spare horses have you?” Daren demanded. “And can your horses carry double? Are they in any shape for a forced march?”

The man looked bewildered by Daren’s sudden demands. “We had twice’s many horses as men, m’lor,” he replied. “‘Spect we still got that many, an’ lot fewer men. Aye, they be good for a forced march, an’ go double all right.”

“Good,” Daren replied. He looked the man in the eyes. “I won’t lead you, sir. But I will put you in a position to strike back at Ancar. Here’s what we’ll do....”

Enemy to the west, enemy to the south. Kero stood beside Selenay on the gentle hill they’d claimed as the spot for their stand, looked out over the sea of Ancar’s men, and swore under her breath.

Selenay shook her head. “It isn’t over yet, Captain,” she replied, as she fitted her helm over her head. “In fact, it isn’t even begun.”

“Well, my lady,” Kero replied, as she tapped her own helm to be sure her tightly coiled braids were cushioning it properly, “I won’t say it’s finished, but damn if I like the look of the odds.”

“Daren may yet arrive,” the Queen pointed out, fitting her foot into the stirrup and mounting.

And the rivers may flow backward, the moon rise in the west, and Ancarfind a religious vocation. Kero said nothing, though, as she swung herself up into her own saddle. “With your permission, my lady, I’m off. You know the plan, such as it is. We’ll try and cut a path for you and the Heralds, heading west.”

“No,” the Queen replied stubbornly. “Not yet. Not while there’s still a chance we can win this—”

“Win!” Kero snorted. “We can’t even hold them back! The scouts say there’s a force of cavalry coming in from the east; if we go head-to-head with them, they’ll win, their horses are fresher and there’re more of them. The one chance we have to get you out is—”

“Captain!” One of the scouts came riding up, her horse lathered. “Captain, cavalry coming in, now—but they’re riding double, and not all of them are wearing Ancar’s colors.”

Kero swore, and turned to Selenay. “My lady, no more arguments, or I’ll have the Healers knock you out and strap you to your Companion’s back with my own hands. No matter what you think, you’re important to Valdemar, and—”

Kero caught lighting-fast movement out of the corner of her eye, and turned with an exclamation of recognition and astonishment. A small gray shape came hurtling through the massed enemy, then through the Valdemar cavalry, frightening horses and making them rear and dance—startling Companions, and making them snort and raise their heads. It headed straight for Kero, and flung itself through the air in a tremendous leap, landing in the arms she reflexively held out to catch it.

One of Geyr’s messenger-hounds. More importantly, it was the odd-looking gray-brindle Geyr had left with Daren.

Doolie!” Geyr hurled himself out of his saddle and stumbled toward them. The dog wriggled with happiness, its tail beating against Kero’s side like a drumstick, and it finally squirmed out of her grasp to launch itself for Geyr and his lumps of suet—though not before Kero had managed to get the message cylinder off his collar.

She opened it and took out the slip of paper with shaking hands.

We’re on the way—with friends,” it read.

“Great blessed Agnira on a polka-dot mule!” she breathed. “By the seven rings of Gabora and the rock of Teylar! Someone put that bastard up for sainthood—he’s pulled off a friggin’ miracle!”

By now she was shouting, and everyone was staring at her, except for Geyr, who was crooning to his exhausted little dog.

She turned to Selenay, who had pushed her face-plate up, and was looking at her as if she had gone mad; alarmed, and a little fearful.

“That isn’t Ancar’s cavalry coming in from the west, my lady,” she exulted, trying very hard to keep her grin from wrapping around the back of her head and splitting it in two. “At least it isn’t Ancar’s cavalry now. It’s Daren, and he turned ’em. I don’t know how, but the bastard turned ’em. That must be why they’re riding double—that’s Daren’s foot up behind the cavalry-riders. I know exactly what he’s doing; this is a trick we played with tokens, back when we were studying together. He’ll have the cavalry come in and drop his infantry in on the southern and eastern flanks to support us, then he’ll bring the cavalry in behind behind Ancar’s foot, probably on the west.”

Selenay’s eyes widened. “We’ll have Ancar caught in the same trap he thought he had us in!”

Kero nodded, and pulled her visor down. “That’s it, my lady. That dog isn’t that much faster than a horse. He’ll be in place any moment—”

Captain!” Shallan shouted, and Kero turned to see where she was pointing.

Fireworks, great splashes of color, fire-flowers against the blue, rising from three places. And Kero knew instantly why, because it was a trick the Skybolts had used before, when their mages were too exhausted or too busy to send signals—the mages were probably unable to approach the border, much less cross it, but physical fireworks worked just fine, and didn’t care about any ‘guardians,’ magic or otherwise. Southeast, due south, and southwest, the fiery fountains signaled Daren’s attack on three fronts. And already there was confusion, some milling around, among the fighters within Kero’s range of vision. The rest of the Skybolts knew what that meant, and let out a whoop of joy.

Kero caught Geyr’s attention, and gave him a hand-signal. He dropped the dog, sent it back to the Healer’s tent with a single command, and pulled his horn around from behind his back. “Prepare to charge” rang out clear and sweet against the growing noise from Ancar’s troops. Selenay’s buglers picked it up, and echoed the command up and down the line.

Kero waited a moment more, as the Skybolts readied themselves. A skirmish charge was not like a regulation charge, and she blessed the gods that her people and Selenay’s had ample opportunities to perfect their coordination these past few weeks, for this was the engagement that would count. The Skybolts would be first in—charging the enemy line, firing as they came, only to peel off to right and left, continuing along the line, firing until they ran out of arrows or line, and coming back in a wide arc. Behind them would be the regular cavalry, lances set; Heavy cavalry first, to hit the lines and hopefully break through while they were still recovering from the hail of arrows, then the light cavalry to come up through the breach made by the heavy cavalry. Then the Skybolts would return, this time arcing their arrows high to hit behind the line of fighting, harass those enemy fighters still on their feet in the front lines, and keep the enemy from bringing foot around to engulf the cavalry.

At that point it would probably get to steel, and at that point, Kero herself would join the affray.

The fight was still uneven—but now they had a chance.

:Don’t go chasing any Shadow-Lovers, you!: said a voice in her mind. :I don’t share with anyone!:

She looked behind her; Eldan’s Companion Ratha shouldered Shallan’s mare aside so that he could take her place. Shallan shrugged, grinned, then made a mocking bow and backed her mare away.

:You’ll have to keep up with me if you want a chance to enforce that,: she replied. :I don’t wait for anyone.:

:Then what are you waiting for now?:

:Nothing.: She lifted her hand and signaled Geyr, who blew the charge, and behind her, at the Healer’s tent, she heard the explosions of their own fireworks. Evidently someone had thought quickly enough to set off their own return signal. Whpever it was, she blessed him.

The first line of archers bore down on the lines, followed by Selenay’s heavy cavalry and the Skybolts’ light mixed with Heralds and Selenay’s light. Dust rose in a blanket from beneath their horses’ hooves, making a yellow haze over the battlefield, and making it hard to see anything. Kero counted under her breath; waiting for the archers to reappear.

At the count of one hundred, they came charging up out of the cloud, turned their horses, and prepared to charge again. Kero strung her bow, made sure the quiver at her saddle-bow was full, and spurred her horse to join them just as they made the turn.

She lost Eldan immediately as he vanished in the chaos; she trusted to Hellsbane’s sure feet to keep them from going down. They sent arrows up over the solid dam of milling bodies, and hoped they wouldn’t hit anything friendly.

Then it was time for sword-edge, as a running line of foot hit them from either side with a shock. Kero cut down at a pikeman trying to hook her out of her saddle; Hellsbane reared and bashed in the skull of another as he hooked her neighbor, a Valdemar regular. A sword came out of nowhere and she parried it, then kicked its owner in the teeth.

Five men converged on her; she got two, and Hellsbane got one—but one got underneath her, because the melee was so thick the mare couldn’t maneuver. Kero saw it coming, the same move that had gotten one of Hellsbane’s predecessors—and she could do nothing to stop it.

The mare screamed as a sword sought her heart—then collapsed, as the blade found it.

Kero launched herself out of the saddle as the horse buckled under her, rolled under another set of hooves, and came up looking for anything with four legs and no rider.

There—a flash of something pale, yellow—no saddle, but that had never mattered to her. Must be one of ours; couple of the scouts ride bareback—The horse seemed to sense her need; it plunged directly toward her, trampling fighters in its way, and stood still long enough for her to seize a handful of mane and drag herself up onto its back.

And just in time—

Daren stuffed the message into the cylinder, and Quenten sent the skinny little dog Kero’s Lieutenant had left with them off across the field. He could hardly believe his eyes when he saw how fast the the beast moved; like a streak of gray lightning.

I hope to hell she gets that, he thought, Quenten said one of the mages was going to put directions in the dog’s head

Never mind. Either she gets it, or she doesn’t.

“Are you ready?” he asked the putative leader of the nameless men. The man nodded curtly. “Good luck to you, then,”

“’Tisn’t luck we be lookin’ for,” the man replied, and rode out to the head of his troops. Daren shuddered. He hadn’t liked what he’d seen in the man’s eyes.

There’s someone who is not coming back, and doesn’t care, and the gods help whoever’s in his way.

At an unspoken signal, the troops rode out, with Daren, the officers, the Rethwellan foot coming behind. Those riders would be the first thing that Ancar’s men saw—and they should assume that they were their own allies, coming up along the wrong flank. That should confuse and anger the officers, who would assume that the cavalry officers were ignoring their orders.

They passed the orchards that had screened their approach from the enemy, and as Ancar’s lines came into view, Daren saw that the plan was working. The officers couldn’t see what was behind the lines of horse, and they were shouting something at the lead riders.

This was what was happening at three points on Ancar’s line: southeast, due south, and southwest, with Daren’s foot hiding behind the eastern riders. Daren waited, and the riders kept their beasts at a slow walk, waiting for the signal.

It came, in a burst of colored fire overhead and to their rear. The riders broke into a gallop, skeining away into the west like a flock of birds, leaving behind the foot that they’d hidden. They would go on to attack the western and southern flanks, leaving the east to Daren.

Daren’s trumpeter blew the charge, and while Ancar’s men were still staring in confusion, the infantry, weary from having been carried on horseback all night, hit their lines with a clash of metal-on-metal.

They were too tired to make it much of a charge, but they were much better off than they would have been if they’d come all this way on foot, instead of being carried pillion or sharing one of the riderless horses. Daren spurred his horse after them, intending to join his men on the line—at odds like these, every sword was going to make a difference.

His gelding’s hooves thudded on the dry ground in time with his pounding heart. All of the enemy nearby seemed to be engaged, he looked around for a target. He thought he could see a melee to his right; with horses boiling in and out of a cloud of dust, but it was hard to tell if it was just a confused lot of escaped horses or a real engagement—he turned his gelding in that direction anyway—

And a wild arrow shot his horse out from under him. He felt the horse start to go down; tried to save himself, but the poor beast somersaulted over, throwing him from the saddle into a bush.

He fought clear of the branches, and looked around frantically for another set of reins, knowing he had to get up above the foot so he could see what was going on.

There—A white horse galloped out of the dust-cloud and headed straight for him as if he’d called it. He didn’t even stop to marvel at his good luck; he just grabbed for the dangling reins and—looked up.

Met a pair of blue eyes that went on forever, with a jolt like taking a mace to his skull—oh, my—:I am Jasan,: said an imperious voice in the back of his head. :You are Daren. I Choose you. Now get the hell up here on my back before you get killed!:

He didn’t remember doing so, and the next thing he knew, he was up in the saddle, and looking around for some of his own people. His attention was caught by an embattled little group on the edge of the general melee.

“My lord?” someone shouted, and he turned. It was his aide, trying to get his attention. Somehow his own personal guard had managed to catch up with him; he didn’t remember that, either.

He looked back to see if the group still fought. It was fairly obvious that this group held someone important; they were besieged on all sides, and most of the fighters surrounding them kept trying to pull the members of the group from their saddles, rather than trying to kill them.

Centermost was a woman; she was armored, but she’d evidently lost her helm. Her gold hair gleamed incongruously in the sunlight, confined only by—Dear gods. That’s the royal coronet.

She was giving a good account of her herself, slashing at those around her as if she’d been taking lessons in mayhem from his old teacher Tarma. But at those odds, she and her defenders weren’t going to last too long.

Over my dead body. “Come on!” he shouted, and started to drive his spurs into his—

Dear gods

His Companion launched himself at the Queen’s position before spur could even touch flank.

:Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that. Don’t even think about it.:

The wind of their parsing whipped the words of apology out of his throat, but it didn’t matter; they hit the enemy from behind, with Jasan doing as much fighting as Daren. For the first time Daren had an idea what it was like to have a warsteed.

:Indeed.: Jasan turned a man’s head into red ruin with his forefeet, fastidiously dancing aside to avoid the blood. :A warsteed. I think not.:

:Sorry,: Daren replied weakly, and then he was much too busy to think, much less reply.

Then—there was no one in front of his sword, and nothing under Jasan’s hooves; Selenay was sheathing her sword and looking in his direction with a thousand questions in her eyes. Jasan blew out a breath, and relaxed.

The Companion paced gracefully toward the Queen of Valdemar with his head held high and stopped just close enough for Daren to reach for her hand and kiss it properly—and there was no doubt in Daren’s mind that this was what his Companion expected him to do.

He pushed back the visor of his helm, and wiped the blood from his own right hand, and started to reach—

—and met Selenay’s eyes. Selenay’s bright, blue, eyes. And felt the words freeze on his tongue.

:Hmm,: Jasan said, smugly, in his mind. :See something you like?:

And from the look on the Queen’s face, she was having a similar tongue-tying experience.

Kero rode up beside Geyr, and slapped his arm to get his attention. “Get out there—” she shouted, waving at the lines of Ancar’s fighters, who were now turning tail and running, heading for the east and even casting aside weapons and shields in order to run faster. Already some of the Skybolts, carried away by battle-fever, were spurring their tired horses to follow.

“Sound ‘Assembly’!” she yelled at him “Get those fools back here before they founder!”

Geyr nodded, and cantered his horse after them. Kero sagged in her place, suddenly exhausted. It wasn’t easy, riding a horse without saddle or reins—doing so in battle was doubly hard. She was just as glad now that her cousins had taught her how and drilled her in it till she was ready to drop.

But this had to be the most remarkable beast she’d ever sat; better than any of the Hellsbanes. It was uncanny, the way it had seemed to read her mind and act accordingly. She looked down at the back of the beast’s head, so covered in yellow dust that it was impossible to say what color it was.

“Well, love,” she said, patting his neck. “Hellsbane’s gone to the Star-Eyed’s pastures, but you seem to have been sent by the Shin’a’in Lady herself. Let’s get a look at you.”

She swung her leg over the horse’s shoulder, and slid down to the ground, then turned with one hand on the horse’s shoulder to look into its eyes.

Its—blue—eyes.

And it was not yellow, as she saw when it shook itself and shed the dust in a cloud; it was white. Tall, blue-eyed, and white as the purest of summer clouds.

“Oh, my—” she said weakly, caught in those eyes, as the eyes were caught in her gaze.

:I am Sayvel. You are my—look out!:

But Kero only turned in time to see the mace coming at her too quickly to block—

Hydatha’s tits!” Daren happened to look away from Selenay’s eyes just in time to see the “dead” man leap to his feet, and swing his mace down on Kero’s head.

Jasan reacted faster than he did; before he managed to get out more than a simple “No!” the Companion had twisted around like a weasel and was charging Kero’s attacker at a gallop.

The man saw them coming, but had no chance to do more than raise his arm ineffectually before he was under Jasan’s hooves.

Not just Jasan’s hooves; another Companion shouldered him aside, and began pounding the man into red dust.

Daren jumped off Jasan, with Selenay right behind him and went to his knees beside Kerowyn’s body. He felt under her chin, then her wrist, for a pulse—Dear gods, oh dear gods, she’s not breathing—I can’t feel a pulse

Then he was shoved aside by a man in filthy, blood-flecked Whites, a man who pounded Kero’s chest, then clamped his mouth over hers to force air into her lungs.

Daren still had Kero’s wrist, when, suddenly, he felt the steady beat beneath his fingers, and she coughed and took a long breath. He got out of the way, as the Herald fumbled with the chin-strap of her helm while Selenay loosened her throat-guard. The other Herald was cursing the helm, and cursing her, and swearing as the tears poured down his face that if she died, he was going to kill her.

Her eyes opened just as the Herald got the helm off, and she looked straight up at him.

“That’s a little extreme, isn’t it, ke’a’char?” she said mildly, just before her eyes rolled up into her head and she passed out.

Daren decided that this was a good time to go collect Kero’s troops, and take over the mopping-up.

Kero tugged at the hem of her pristine white tunic, and looked out over the grounds of the Herald’s Collegium from her vantage point atop an old observation tower. She scowled as she realized what she was doing, and clasped her hands behind her back. As she did so, her hand brushed Need’s hilt. She left it there for a moment, but there was no sign from the sword. She half expected the blade to demand to be passed to Elspeth when the fighting was all over, but it hadn’t stirred at all since that single moment of recognition.

Well, the tradition is that the sword passes when the new bearer is about to go do something dangerous, and Elspeth’s not likely to go running off on her own any time soon. But I can’t say as I’d miss the damn thing too much.

Ancar—or rather, his army—had run back home to Hardorn with tails tucked between legs. Bobbed tails; those suicidal farmers Daren had brought in had done an immense amount of damage before they were cut down. Valdemar was safe for a while, at least—and there would be more tying Valdemar to Rethwellan than just a promise.

Selenay was absolutely head over heels in love with—of all people—Daren. And he was just as disgustingly smitten as she was. You could hardly get them apart. Eldan swore it was a lifebond.

Ill have to remember to tell her he snores when he’s drunk.

Talia and that man-mountain of hers were giggling about the situation every time Kero saw them. Even Princess Elspeth seemed to find it all very amusing; Kero wondered how amusing she’d find it when she suddenly had infant sisters and brothers to tend. Selenay was no old hag, and fertility ran in Daren’s family.

Oh, well, Faram is just going to have to learn to get along without the best Lord Martial he’s ever had. I don’t think you’re going to be able to pry Daren out of Valdemar without a crowbar.

She caught herself tugging the hem of her tunic again, and scowled down at it. “How in hell can I be a Herald at my age?” she demanded of the air. “I’ve got things to do, I’ve got a life and responsibilities!”

But unless she wanted to give up Sayvel—Never!she was going to have to stay in Valdemar.

“But what am I going to do about the Skybolts?” she asked aloud.

:I don’t know, dear, the problem’s never come up before.:

“That’s because you idiot horses never Chose a merc Captain before,” she replied acidly. “These aren’t just people I order around; I’ve led them for ten years, they’re practically my children! How can I just abandon them, put them in the hands of somebody else—somebody like Ardana, who didn’t give a damn and could take them right into disaster?”

:None of your seconds are like Ardana,: the Companion pointed out.

“But none of my seconds have half my training, either!” She paced back and forth, just about ready to throw herself off the walls and be done with it. “They’re not ready, and I’m not ready. It’s either leave you, or leave them, and how can I make a decision like that?”

:You’re the only one who can.:

“I told you she’d be up here.” Geyr’s black head peered over the edge of the observation platform. “Captain, this obsession you have with heights is damned unnatural.” He climbed into view, followed by Shallan, Scratcher, and a tumble of his little dogs.

:I agree. Feet belong on the ground.:

“Captain, we voted again,” Shallan said. “We figured you’d be all tied up in knots about being stuck as a Herald and you having to stay and us going back and all, so we figured we’d make up your mind for you. We’re staying.”

“You’re what?” Kero stuttered. “How? Why?”

“Ah, it’s easy enough,” Scratcher said with a grin. “This Queen offered an unlimited contract, with you as permanent Captain, once you finish that schooling they want to give you.”

“Hellfires,” Kero muttered. “School. At my age.”

“Since Quenten and the rest can’t cross over the border, they’re goin’ back to Bolthaven and send ev’body else up here. Quenten’s takin’ over Bolthaven, make a school out of it.”

“Just like your grandmother’s,” Shallan interjected. “Town won’t suffer by it, nor will the pensioners. I was talkin’ with your cousins before we left; they reckoned it wouldn’t be a bad thing to haul some Clan strings up here, where the market’s better. So I ‘spect they’ll bring Tale’sedrin horses up here, and let another Clan take over the Bolthaven horse fair. And gods help anybody who messes with them. Quenten just made Master. Nobody’s gonna try anything sharp on them, comin’, goin’ or in between.”

Kero turned her back on them, feeling as if she was being humored. “So you’ve got it all settled for me, have you?” They don’t need me, after all. I guess I’m pretty redundant....

Hellfire, Captain!” Shallan snarled, so fiercely it forced Kero to turn to look at them. “This was the only way these damn whitecoats’d let us keep you! You think we’re gonna let you go kiting all over this heathen country by yourself? Not likely! If you’re gonna find some action, we want a piece of it!”

Adalnda, Captain, you’ve gone and landed us in the cream,” Geyr said shrewdly. “Scratcher has not told you our hire. The Queen is deeding us a border town.”

“Can you imagine it?” Scratcher chuckled. “Us! Landed gentry, no less! There is no way we’re letting you out of our sight! You took the Skybolts from half a Company to landed status—we wanta see what else you come up with! We may yet wind up dukes or something!”

“’Sides,” Shallan growled, scuffing her boot-toe against the stone. “These folks need us. An’ some of your damn morals is rubbin’ off on us.”

:High time, too.:

:We’ll see about that. You people could use a good shaking up, Sayvel.: Kero shook her head, and looked down at the pure white tunic. “Damn. Guess I don’t have a choice, if I’m going to convert you ruffians to honest citizens.”

Geyr made a rude sound, and Shallan did her “village idiot” imitation.

“Dear gods, what have I gotten myself into?”

“We’re gonna shake ’em up, Captain,” said Scratcher, echoing her earlier retort to Sayvel.

“They could use it,” she agreed. “Gods, there’s one thing I’d like to do—is there any way we can camouflage this ‘oh shoot me now’ uniform?”

“Could be, Captain,” Scratcher said with a wink. “I’ll work on it.”

“I guess they’re just going to have to get used to a new kind of Herald, Captain,” Shallan grinned.

:High time for that, too. We’re supposed to be flexible. You can keep us all on our toes, and you can start with Eldan, I think. And you should have guessed that your troopers noticed how you two feel about each other. They think this is a perfect solution for that, too. And they’re taking bets on when the handfasting’s going to be.:

Kero chuckled. :Lady, you’re going to get flexible like you’ve never seen before. And Eldan’s going to get some real surprises.: “In that case, I think this is going to work out.” She saluted them, and all three returned the salute.

“Come on,” she told them. “Let’s go scandalize Valdemar.”

“For starters,” Shallan observed, “We’re going to have to teach these whitecoats how to have a real party.”

:As the Tayledras say, “May you live in interesting times.”:

Kero threw back her head and laughed. :You got it, horse-lady :

:And may you get—not what you deserve—but your heart’s desire.:

:You know, lovely lady,: Kero sent back to her, as she followed her troopers down to tell the rest that she’d accepted their solution, :I think I have. Beyond all logic and expectation, I actually think I have.: