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

TwoEdged Blade

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 Two: Two-Edged Blade

Eleven

“Great Jaesel,” Shallan said, her bright blue eyes widening in awe at the sight of what blocked the well-pounded trail, “What in hell is that?”

She must have unconsciously tightened her legs, because her high-strung gelding bucked, then bounced a little sideways, blundering into Hellsbane.

Trouble—Kero exerted immediate pressure on the reins, so the mare only laid her ears back, rather than reacting with the swift snap of teeth she would ordinarily have indulged in.

Shallan swore, made a fist and thumped her restive mount between his ears, and the fractious beast subsided. Once again the scouting party turned their collective attention toward the untidy sprawl of humanity across their path. “Sprawl” was definitely the operative term, Kero decided. There was a tangle of about twenty or thirty men, some standing, most in variations of “fallen,” all interlaced with ten-foot (thankfully) headless pikes.

“Didn’t the sergeant from Bornam’s Bastards say something about recruiting from the area last night?” asked a male voice from right behind Kero. Gies, she identified automatically; of the twins, he had the deeper voice. “I think so,” replied his identically-swarthy brother, Tre, and she knew she’d picked the right name for the right twin. “The sergeant wasn’t real optimistic.”

“I’d say he had reason not to be,” Shallan replied, shaking her ice-blonde head in disgust. “And from the look of this, we’d better detour before they get themselves sorted out and stand up.” A few more of the men got themselves untangled from the rest and stood aside. Their sergeant wasn’t shouting—mostly because, from the crimson color of his face, Kero reckoned that he was holding off a fit of apoplexy by will alone.

“Aye to that,” Kero said. She was nominally the head of this group, but only during the actual scouting foray, and they weren’t in the field at the moment. “Let’s take the back way.”

The four scouts turned their horses’ heads and went back the way they’d come in, following the pounded-dirt track between hacked-off patches of scrubby brush. Behind them the sergeant finally regained his voice, and began using it.

The four Companies Menmellith’s Council had hired for “bandit eradication” had bivouacked in a canyon, but not a blind one; there were at least four ways into the area that Kero knew of, and she had no doubt the twins knew a couple more. The “back way,” which was the other, nominally traveled, route in, took them over some rough ground, but their horses could handle it; they were all Shin’a’in-bred.

A few furlongs along the scrub-lined dirt trail (which steady commerce over the past few days had pounded into the soil), the human track was bisected by a game trail that led off through the weather-beaten bushes and tired, stunted oaks. That “back way” was good for a goat or a mountain-deer, but not terribly attractive to humans afoot or humans with horses, which made it unlikely that they’d run into any more delays getting back to camp.

In fact, the back way was so quiet there was still wildlife living along it. Birds flew out of the trees as they passed, and a covey of quail watched from beneath the shelter of a thorn-bush. “Gods,” Shallan said, thumping her horse again as he shied at a rabbit bolting across their path. “Gods. Green recruits. Thanks be to Saint Keshal that Lerryn won’t put green’uns in the field.”

“Could be worse,” Tre observed. “Could be levied troops from Menmellith and Rethwellan out here.”

Shallan groaned, but Kero shook her head. “Menmellith, maybe, but not Rethwellan. Rethwellan won’t even officially be our hire. Officially, they’ve ‘loaned’ the Council the cash to pay for us. Got that from a letter.” She didn’t say from whom. Everyone in the Skybolts knew about her friendship with Daren—and knew equally well that she wouldn’t trade on it. But she could, and would, pass along any information he happened to drop, whether by accident or design.

“Oh?” Shallan and the other two looked studiously indifferent, which told Kero they hadn’t heard this particular tidbit of gossip. “Why’s that?”

“Simple enough. We all know that Karse is funding these ‘bandits’—assuming they aren’t already part of the Karsite army. But outside of these Borders?” Kero shrugged. “Anyway, that’s why it’s us, and why Rethwellan’s out of it. We’re not official units of any army. Whatever we do, it can’t cause a diplomatic incident. And if we happen to get carried away, and it turns out that the subsequent bodies were part of the Karsite army, well, Karse has violated the Code so many times that the Guild not only wouldn’t fine the offenders, they might even be rewarded. Unofficially, of course.”

“Of course,” Tre agreed brightly. Kero looked back over her shoulder. The identical smiles on both twins’ faces could only be described as “bloodthirsty.”

Or maybe it was just greed. It wasn’t too often that a bonded Company had free rein to loot, but that’s exactly what the Menmellith Council—their putative employers—had given them. Not that Kero blamed them. Probably half of what was in the possession of the “bandits” had belonged to folk hereabouts first. If anybody got it, the locals would rather it was friends than enemies.

Rethwellan had granted Menmellith client-state status and semi-autonomy shortly after Daren had been born. Supposedly this was a kind of thanks-offering for the birth of a third son; in actuality, now that she’d seen the state with her own eyes, Kero suspected that the King had seized on the first available excuse to liberate his land from a considerable drain on the royal coffers. Menmellith was mostly mountain, hellishly hard to travel in, constantly raided by Karsite “bandits,” and probably impossible to govern or tax effectively. Now it was governed by its own fractious, taciturn folk, served as a buffer between Karse and the lusher lands of Rethwellan, and the King need only hire the occasional merc Company to clean things out now and again, instead of being forced to keep a detachment of the army there on permanent duty.

“We’re fairly useless at the moment, you know,” Shallan said, as her horse picked its way daintily across a dry streambed that formed part of the trail. “They’re just sending the scouting parties out to make sure everything’s still where it’s supposed to be.”

“I know,” Kero sighed. If there was one thing she’d learned with the Skybolts, it was that warfare consisted mostly of waiting. “I’m not even supposed to report to anyone unless we do see something odd. I suppose it wouldn’t be so damned bad if we could see something going on, but the bastards are not coming out of that canyon.”

“Can’t say as I blame them,” Gies said laconically. “If I’d got m’self trapped in a blind canyon, wouldn’t be comin’ out either. They c’n hold us off long as the food’n’water last, an’ we just might get bored an’ go away.”

Shallan laughed; not a sound of amusement, it was a particularly ugly laugh. “Between them, the Wolflings and the Bastards are likely to make things real uncomfortable for them in there. Then when they pop out, we’ll be waiting. And so will the Earthshakers.”

Kero preferred not to think too much about that. It was going to cost the two Companies of foot quite a bit in blood to shake the “bandits” out of their lair. By contrast, the Company of heavy cavalry and the Skybolts’ skirmishers had it easy, if dull.

But when the “bandits” did emerge, they’d be like any desperate and cornered creatures, and Shallan was likely to get a bellyful of fighting.

But it wouldn’t profit anyone to say that out loud, so Kero held her peace, and kept her eyes on the uncertain trail. The last thing she needed to do would be to lame Hellsbane.

“Stand,” Kero told Hellsbane. The gray stamped restlessly once more, but then obeyed with no other sign of rebellion. Kero tapped her right foreleg, and the war-steed lifted the massive hoof and set it in Kero’s waiting hands.

She pulled the hoofpick out of her belt, and began cleaning the packed muck out of it with studious care. There was a lot of gravel around here, and Kero did not intend to find herself with a lamed horse because of a moment’s carelessness. Shallan had already lost the use of her remount that way.

“I could really get to hate Menmellith,” she told Hellsbane conversationally. The gray flicked her ears back with every evidence of intelligent interest. “I can see why Jad let them hare off and become a client-state. There’s nothing here but sheep, rocks, and bone-headed shepherds. Certainly nothing worth keeping. Why Karse keeps trying to invade them, I’ll never know.” She thought for a moment, then added, “Unless it’s just one more example of how crazy the Karsites are.”

She finished with the right forehoof, and moved back to the hind. “Stand, she repeated, with a little more force this time, as some noise from the next camp over made Hellsbane roll her eyes and fidget. She straightened long enough to see what all the fuss was.

A small forest of poles was marching straight for the picket lines, and horses up and down the line were starting to stamp and look nervous.

Blessed Agnira—pikemen again? That’s Jeffrey’s Wolflings! What fool sent pikemen to drill next to picketed horses? Don’t they know how much battle-trained horses hate pikes? They’re going to have the whole line spooked in a minute! She was just about to head them off, by intercepting them and launching into a powerful flood of abuse, when someone beat her to it.

“’Alt, damn yer ‘ides! I said right march, not bleedin’ left!”

The line came to an abrupt and picture-perfect halt. The Wolfling’s pike-sergeant strode around the back of the (now stationary) formation, face red as a sunset, veins bulging out on his forehead. “Jecrena’s bleedin’ arse, he bellowed, “ye’d think ye was a lot o’ plowboys, not perfeshnal sojers!” From there his tirade went into extreme sexual and scatological detail as to the habits and probable ancestry of his charges. Kero leaned against Hellsbane’s rump, listening in astonished admiration. His language was colorful, original, and quite entertaining. She’d been with the Skybolts for quite a few years now, and had never quite heard anything like it.

I should be taking notes, she thought, watching the sergeant get his men turned back in the right direction.

The horses were definitely calming down, now that the pikes were going the other way. You never hear anything like that around our camp.

But that was at least in part because horseback skirmishers didn’t drill the way pike and line swordsmen did. No sergeants, for one thing.

Kero went back to Hellsbane’s hooves, glad to have thought of something to do. “There’s a lot of waiting involved in warfare, Tarma had said many times over. Kero had never quite believed her at the time.

She did now.

Well, it could be worse, she consoled herself. We could have Rethwellan regulars with us. Then every merc in the Companies would be getting the long-nosed look when he dared poke his head out of camp. What in hell is it that makes every conscript farmboy who can’t tell his brain from his backside and wouldn’t know what three quarters of the Code meant think he’s morally superior to a merc?

She sighed; the question wasn’t worth losing sleep over. Every merc ever born was a misfit; that’s why most of them wound up as mercs in the first place. Lady knows I’m no exception, she thought glumly. Last time I went home, Dierna acted like I was going to eat the baby, and Lordan carried on as if he thought I was planning on stealing the boys, the horses, the sheep, or all three. Each time she visited, she was more of a stranger, and after the last time, she’d just about made up her mind never to go back again.

My only real friends are here, anyway, she reflected, picking at a bit of gravel lodged in Hellsbane’s left hind hoof. The warsteed switched her bound-up tail restlessly, but didn’t object. Kero had remarked once that Hellsbane’s behavior was a lot more like a dog’s than a horse’s, and Tarma had only smiled and replied cryptically, “Why do you think we won’t let them breed to anything but their own kind?” After that, Kero had taken extra care when spring came around and Hellsbane went into season.

Then she discovered that such care was entirely un-needed. The warsteed was perfectly capable of fending off unwanted advances, and she evidently hadn’t yet found the stallion that measured up to her own high standards.

Hooves clean, Kero loitered on the lines, replaiting the gray’s tail, and watching the Wolflings drill. Those long pikes were a lot harder to manage than anyone but a fighter could imagine. All in all, it made her grateful to be with the Skybolts.

Twoblades’ Company actually began as what Idra’s Sunhawks came to be; an entirely mounted force of specialists. In every one of the campaigns Kero had served in up until now they’d been constantly busy; their greatest asset was that they were versatile as well as highly mobile. Every one of the Skybolts could double as a scout, and when they weren’t on the battlefield, they could ride messenger detail. Not this time, or at least, not now.

There were constant scouting forays, of course, just to make sure that the enemy hadn’t found a way out of the trap, but that was the only thing like work going on for the Skybolts. That unwonted leisure was beginning to have an effect on the Company. Which is why I’m out here, and not in camp. In general, there were only three pursuits available to a merc when forced into idleness: gambling, drinking, and sex. Kero was too shrewd to be lured into the first, too cautious for the second, and as for the third—

I’m an odd fish in a pond full of odd fish, she thought, a little sadly. Between the sword and this so-called Gift of mine....

The Gift was the main reason she didn’t drink; when she did, her carefully-wrought shields came down, and the guard came off her tongue. Only once had she let that happen; she’d frightened a tavern full of hard-bitten soldiers into sobriety with the things she’d said about them. Only some fancy verbal footwork the next day enabled her to convince them that they’d misheard most of it, and luck had given her the rest. So she didn’t drink at all now; at least, not to get drunk and not in company, which set her apart from most of the rest of the Company.

She was terrified of what would happen if they ever did find out the truth. Mercs have too many secrets to appreciate anyone, even someone they trust, to be rummaging around in their minds. Every one of us was driven into this life by something, and most of us don’t want anyone else to know what that is. Even me. If anyone ever found out about this “Gift” of mine, I don’t know what I’d do.

The sword now—that set her apart in another way. She was Kethry’s granddaughter—that was no secret—and by now everyone seemed to have heard the song of “Kerowyn’s Ride.” It would have been impossible to hide the fact that she still had the blade; she wore it all the time, and wouldn’t take it off (so common gossip had it) if she went to bed with someone. Well, that wasn’t quite true—but she’d learned that being too far away from it could be torture.

There’d been a really bad rainy season a couple of years ago; they’d had to cross a flood-swollen river, and Kero’s packhorse had gone under. That was before she’d taken to wearing the blade all the time; she’d thought for the crossing that it was safer strapped to the packs. She’d just barely made it onto the riverbank when the pain of the overstrained soul-bond started. The Company Healer had thought it some sort of curse, until she’d gasped out an explanation of just what it was she’d lost—between spasms of blinding agony that left her helpless even to speak. The entire Company had gone out into the storm to look for the damned thing and bring it back.

They’d found it, before sunset—but that put her in a position of debt she was determined to repay. After a lot of careful thought and consultation with the Company hedge-wizard she’d found a way; she’d coaxed the blade (with much emphasis on how many females were in the Skybolts) into extending its anti-magic protection to include a fair amount of ground in her immediate vicinity. Actually, her protections covered more area than the Company mages could, which made her rather popular when the mage-bolts began to fly.

Thinking about that, she patted the hilt of the sword the way she patted Hellsbane’s neck. Now that I’ve got you cooperating, my lady, you’re even more useful than you were to Kethry. I’ve heard more than one Skybolt say he’d sooner trust your abilities than that hedge-wizard of ours.

For a moment, at the back of her mind, she seemed to hear a kind of sleepy murmur of pleasure; but it was too faint for her to be certain. She’d never yet figured out how much—or how little—intelligence the sword had. Or how much it understood or even heard of what she said to it. These occasional little whispers, like the vague mutterings of a sleep-talker, were the closest she ever got to communication.

Many of the Skybolts were a little fearful of the blade, as well as respectful of it and its powers. So that set her apart as well.

Then there was the problem of sex....

Not within the Company. There’s too much potential for trouble, and I have to live with these people.

There were pairings within the Company, and some of them worked very well. But some of them didn’t, and when that happened, it spilled over onto everyone else. And in the middle of a campaign that could get people killed.

Tarma had warned her about that, too, and she’d been right. “You don’t sleep around in the Company, she’d said. “They’re your family, and you don’t bed your brothers. Or sisters, she’d added as an afterthought.

Wise advice. But it made Kero very much a loner—and in a case like this, bivouacked leagues away from civilization, it also didn’t leave her very much to do.

All my jewelry-carving equipment is back at the winter quarters; I never thought I’d need it now. I suppose I could go find the Healer and get her to teach me how to knit those ankle-braces, she thought, combing her fingers through Hellsbane’s coat. Or I could roach the mare’s mane. Or I could poultice the stone-bruise on Shallan’s remount. Or I could find some flat river pebbles and draw up another set of hound-and-stag stones for someone. Come to think of it, Shallan wanted a set.

As if the thought had summoned her, Shallan strolled up to the picket line, currycombs in hand, hoof-pick in her belt, short, white-blonde hair gleaming like a cap of silver-gilt in the sun.

“What’s the word?” Kero asked her. “Anything new on the grapevine?”

“Word is that we’re supposed to take prisoners,” she replied, tossing one of the currycombs to Kero. “Word is there’s some pretty good circumstantial evidence that these whoresons really are Karsite regulars, but nothing direct. Lerryn wants to prove it, and the rest of the Captains are in agreement.”

“So we take prisoners?” Kero asked. “Which means afterward, we make somebody talk.”

“Contract says they’re bandits,” Shallan pointed out with bloodthirsty glee. “Karse says they’re bandits. Bandits don’t fall under the Code. Which means when we’ve got ’em, we make ’em talk. However.”

“And if it turns out they’re Karsite regulars?” Kero persisted.

Shallan shrugged fluidly, the leather of her tight black tunic moving with her shoulders. “Five years ago, ‘bandits’ murdered just about every man in Feldar’s Teeth after they’d surrendered. Three years ago a half-dozen men from the Doomslayers—actually prisoners of war, and waiting for Guild ransom—were tortured by Karsite priests. And what was ransomed later was a clutch of completely mindless husks. Two years ago, more of these ‘bandits’ overran the Hooters’ winter quarters and killed the civilians—while the Hooters themselves were out putting down a rebellion in Ruvan, and weren’t even near Karse.” Shallan’s voice betrayed the tense anger her face and posture wouldn’t reveal. “Each time, the Guild levied a big fine. Each time Karse just paid it. No denial, not even a comment—they just paid it.”

Kero frowned, dusting her hands off on her mud-brown leather breeches. “That’s odd.”

“Odd? Great gods, it’s a slap in our face! It’s like they’re saying we’re so lowly, such vermin, that they want everyone to know what they did.” She dropped her voice, so that Kero had to lean closer to hear. “Look, Kero, I know I’m a year younger than you are, but I’ve been in the business since I was fourteen. My mama was a Sunhawk. I’ve seen a hell of a lot, most of it not real pretty by civilian standards, and most of it doesn’t bother me any more. This is my job, you understand? And I don’t get worked up about things that go on in it—but I’ll tell you right now, for what I’ve seen the Karsites do to my friends and their friends, well, I’d kill ’em for free and dance on the graves after.”

Kero knew Shallan was tough, for all that Shallan was a head shorter than she was, and looked frail enough for a wind to blow away. That fragility was entirely false; Shallan was as tough as the black leather she wore, and as impervious to damage, and in all the time she’d been with the Skybolts, Kero had never seen Shallan frightened.

But she was frightened now, afraid of the Karsites, and all her brave words about “killing them for free and dancing on the graves” couldn’t hide that.

For a heartbeat or two, Kero felt trapped by the blue intensity of Shallan’s eyes. Then she broke free of that hypnotic gaze, aided by Hellsbane’s restive stamping. Shallan could do that, now and again; but only when she felt so strongly about something that it was worth living or dying to her.

“I don’t know about taking prisoners,” she said quietly, turning away and going back to work on the gray’s dusty hide. “The more I hear about the Karsites, the less I want to do with them. Almost seems like if you acted like they do, you’d be in danger of becoming like them. But if Lerryn wants prisoners—well, that’s an order, isn’t it?”

“Aye, that,” Shallan agreed. Kero did not like the tone of her voice.

Dear gods, she sounds like she’d be perfectly happy to volunteer for the crew who’re going to be “persuading” these prisoners to talk—assuming we catch any. And now that I think about it, she’s not the only one to sound that way about these so-called bandits, or the Karsites in general.

She felt a little sick. For all that they were the enemy, for all the atrocities they had meted out, she couldn’t picture herself handing the same treatment back to them. Kill them, yes, but cleanly. She couldn’t agree with Shallan’s attitude. They’re so damned vindictive about this, all of them. But maybe I’m the one who’s out of line, here. Shallan’s lover lost a sister in some fight or other—there’re others in the Skybolts that lost friends and family along through here, over the past five years or so. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I just don’t feel that angry at them because I just can’t seem to get really attached to anyone, not even my own blood-kin.

She leaned into the strokes of the currycomb, and thought back to the incidents that had started her on this whole career, trying to recapture exactly how she felt when she saw her brother wounded, her father dead.

Just—responsibility. That’s all I really felt that I can remember. That someone had to take care of the mess, and I was the only one possible. Dear gods, what’s wrong with me? Why am I so cold?

Maybe it’s just that I’ve never really had anyone get close enough that I could honestly say I loved him, except Mother.

But that didn’t seem natural either. Other people seemed to be falling in and out of love all the time, but for her, nothing ever seemed to get involved but her body, and sometimes, her mind.

The first lover is supposed to be such a big thing—but with Daren there didn’t really seem to be more at stake than friendship and—well—the desires of the moment.

She cast a glance over at Shallan when she thought the other woman wouldn’t notice. Her companion could—and did—wax passionate about causes and people at the drop of a gauntlet. This got her into trouble more often than not, but Shallan had no intention of changing, maintaining that it was better to live life hard and completely.

Kero was just the opposite; after those flare-ups with Daren she had never again actually fought with anyone. She saved her anger and her energy for the battlefield; off the field, she thought everything through, planned for every possible contingency, then went coldly and self-reliantly straight for her goal.

Sometimes I go after what I want with such single-mindedness that I frighten myself, she thought, watching Shallan grooming her horse as if by brushing out every speck of dirt she could wipe the Karsites from the face of the earth. I’d hate to see what the others think of me.

Uncomfortable thoughts, and not likely to improve her disposition. She was glad to have them interrupted by a shout from the direction of camp.

She looked up over Hellsbane’s shoulder, as Tre waved, his dull scarlet shirt identifying him even at a distance. He’d never yet worn the thing out on scout, but he inevitably changed back into it as soon as they hit camp. “Kero! Shal! Back to camp on the double! Meeting!”

She waved back to show that they’d heard, and tossed the currycomb to Shallan. The younger woman caught it deftly, and the two of them ducked under the picket line and trotted toward the mess tent.

“I wonder what it’s about?” Shallan said, trotting along with an ease that reminded Kero of Warrl’s lazy lope. Her eyes glinted with an eagerness that Kero thought held just a hint of battle madness. “Maybe they’ve decided to put on a push so we can get this over with!”

At that point, they reached the edge of the growing crowd, so Kero was saved from having to make a reply. Most of the Skybolts had already gathered at the mess tent when they arrived. They worked their way around to the side; as leader of a scout party, Kero had just enough rank to get in fairly close to their Captain.

Lerryn Twoblades did not look like much of a fighter. He wore the same scuffed leathers as any of his Company; his only concession to rank was a round pin of carved silver Kero had made him, showing two crossed swords bisected by a lightning bolt. Thin and not particularly tall, and just now at rest, he wasn’t very imposing, either. But when he rose to speak, it was immediately apparent that he was whipcord and steel over bone, and moved with a lazy grace that spoke volumes to anyone who had studied hand-to-hand combat. Those limpid brown eyes missed nothing; those foppish curls covered a skull with frightening intelligence inside it. There wasn’t one single horse in the entire camp he couldn’t handle, up to and including Hellsbane, which had surprised the hell out of both Kero and her horse. And all he had to do was say three words, and it was no secret why the Skybolts were fanatically devoted to their Captain.

He scanned the crowd slowly to let the muttering die away. Only when he had relative silence did he speak, in a calm, but carrying voice. “We’ve voted, and we’ve decided to make a push,” he said. “Otherwise we let these whoresons force us to piss away our troops against them, while there may be groups out there we haven’t bottled up taking pieces out of the Border.”

There was the start of a cheer—when he raised his hand for silence. He got it, too—something that never failed to impress Kero.

“The Skybolts won’t be fighting,” he said firmly, “and I’m not taking any volunteers to go on temp to the other Companies. And that’s an order.”

Agnira—there’re going to be some objections to that, and for sure—And there were; a storm of them. People began shouting and waving their hands to get his attention, for all the world like a crowd of unruly children. Lerryn simply let the hotheads have their say, then held up his hand again.

“It’s not our kind of fight,” he told them, his eyes moving from face to face so that in the end, every one of them would have been willing to swear that the Captain talked to him, directly. “We aren’t trained, any of us, in the kind of line fighting there’s going to be. Most of us are runty little bastards,” he continued, with a rueful grin that included himself with them. “We couldn’t take on a big man in a shoulder-to-shoulder situation, not when we’ve built careers and training on speed and agility. We couldn’t use our short-swords or horse-bows, and those little round target shields would be damned useless against maces and axes. We can’t do any damn good with unfamiliar weapons, afoot, against heavy infantry. And if you all really think about that, and are honest, you’ll agree with me.”

There was more muttering, and some vehement head-shaking, but not much. Lerryn’s words made sense even to the most belligerent among them.

The Captain spread his hands in a gesture that said wordlessly, Look, I don’t like this any more than you do, but we all know the facts when we see them. “We’ve done our job,” he said. “No one can fault us—we’re the ones who tracked them, and we’re the ones who harried them and trapped them here in the first place. It’s time for the others to do their job, and now we have to get out of the way so they can do it without interference. Hmm?” He tilted his head slightly to one side; there was more muttering—Shallan, predictably, was one of the mutterers—but it quickly died away.

“Don’t think we’re getting off easy,” he said, “I’m deploying half of you as outriders to make sure nobody gets away. If there’s a breakout, you’ll be fighting—and you outriders are as important as the front liners. More. That’s the place where we’ll have a good shot at taking prisoners. We don’t want anyone to escape to take word back to—wherever.”

Tactfully not saying what everyone is thinking. Kero’s lip twitched. We can say it, but because he’s Captain, he can’t. Not till it’s proved. That “wherever” is Karse, and if they get back with word of this, the Karsites may send a bigger force before we’re ready for it.

Lerryn looked them all over once again, the breeze blowing his long hair back from his face. “The rest of you, get the camp packed up and ready to move on the instant. Pack up your friends, if they’re out on patrol. Once the siege is broken, we’ll be moving as fast as we can, back to a secured zone.”

Again, not saying what he can’t—but he expects there to be prisoners, and I’ll bet my next bonus he’s been toldwe’ll have custody of them. We’re the fastest, and if we can get the prisoners to a secure lockup, we can have them singing like woodlarks before the Karsites even know we have them. I‘d bet on Abevell for that secure lockup. Town’s practically carved into the side of the mountain.

Lerryn waited for any further comment, but the Skybolts knew their leader, and that his decisions were final. Later, when they were all behind friendly walls, they’d find out why those decisions had been made. Until then, they were willing to take it on faith that there were reasons.

“Dismissed,” he said, and singled out a dozen scout-leaders with a pointed finger before they all dispersed. Those chosen followed him back to his tent. The rest milled restlessly for a moment, then drifted back toward the camp in twos and threes to begin the breakdown.

Kero was not among the select, but she hadn’t expected she’d be; after all, her group had already been out this morning, and Lerryn wasn’t the kind of Captain to impose double duty on someone without a compelling reason. She was relieved, both that the Skybolts were not going to be involved in the fight, and that she wasn’t going to be part of the harriers.

It’s too much, she decided, making noncommittal answers to Shallan as they walked through the orderly rows of tents to their own. Running people down on horseback, like I was hunting rabbits—hellfires, I don’t even hunt rabbits on horseback! I’m just glad I don’t have to be part of that. I think maybe the Captain figured that out, too. He gave me that kind of look. I don’t think he likes it either.

Shallan’s tent was the closest, and the blonde dove into it with another moan of complaint. “—and just my luck, Relli’s with Hagen, which means she’ll be in on it and I’ll have to pack her stuff up!”

Sure enough, the tent was empty, and Shallan threw herself at her lover’s belongings with grim determination. Kero took herself off before she could be coerced into helping. Relli was something of a clotheshorse, and Kero did not want to take responsibility for the least little crease that “ruined” a tunic.

Her own tent was the same size as Shallan’s but seemed larger, since she had to it herself. Technically these were four-man tents, but only if you stacked everyone together like logs, and no one had more than a single backpack of possessions. Two fit fine; one was perfect, so far as Kero was concerned. Lerryn didn’t care about sleeping arrangements so long as everyone was under canvas and someone took responsibility for the tent itself. If they took on anyone without his own shelter and they ran out of Company tents, Kero might be ordered to share, but until then, she had her privacy.

She was glad of it, as she packed her belongings down with practiced ease, and began rolling her bedding. The trapped bandits were going to be massacred. She knew how completely logical that was. And she didn’t like it. If she’d had a tentmate, she’d have had to talk about it, and she didn’t want to. The sooner I can shake the dust of this place from Hellsbane’s hooves, the better I’m

Suddenly she heard something on the edge of the camp. Confused shouting, too far away to make out words, but there was no mistaking the tone. There was something wrong, desperately wrong.

For only the second time since she’d joined the Skybolts, she dropped her mental shields and searched for a coherent picture among the jangle of thoughts—looking for the person who knew what was going on.

Lerryn.

She found him, on the picket line, directing incoming scouts who were galloping up to the line in panic, while the Company hedge-wizard sent up the emergency “come in” signal beside him.

The thoughts in his mind were clear and organized, as cool and unpanicked as her own would be if she were in his place. Though what she read there would have sent anyone else into the kind of panic the rest of the camps were showing.

For all the guesses had been right—these were no “bandits” the Companies had pinned, these were Karsite regulars. But somehow, some way, they had gotten word of their position across the Border, and Karse had sent out a real army to close in behind and catch the Companies in a pincer maneuver. The odds, depending on who Lerryn talked to, were either two or three to one, in the Karsite favor.

Kero pulled out of Lerryn’s mind as invisibly as she had insinuated herself in, glad now that she had not given in to temptation and had brought only what Hellsbane could comfortably carry. The tent would have to be abandoned, of course. There was no percentage in standing and fighting, and there was only one way of dealing with this trap before they were all caught in it.

Run.

Each Captain cared only for his own at this point—which was the biggest weakness of a force comprised of mercs. Kero could not help but pity the heavy infantry, the Wolflings—they had no one to cover for them and harry their pursuers. She had no idea how they would get away.

On the other hand, she thought, with a twinge of guilt at her selfishness, I don’t want to be the one covering their rear, either.

She flung herself out of her tent with all of those things of her worldly goods that she needed to survive on her back and in her two hands; no more, with the addition of a ration pack for herself and her horse, than Hellsbane could carry and still run. Everything else she left without a second thought.

Not everyone was so pragmatic; she and Shallan had to physically tear Relli away from her wardrobe and drag her toward the picket lines. The Wolflings, in the next camp over, were already on their way out, pouring over the “back way,” as fast as their feet could march. The Skybolts of all the Companies were the likeliest to survive intact; with each of them mounted on light, agile horses, and with so much broken ground available to hide them. That is, the Company would survive; as always, the survival of an individual was problematical.

Shallan and Relli were nearly the last to arrive; Relli took one look at Lerryn’s grim expression, and shut her mouth on the last of her laments. Without another word, the trio accepted their ration sacks from the quartermaster, tied their packs behind their saddles, and mounted up.

Lerryn waited until the last straggler joined them, before mounting his own beast—a rawboned roan a full hand taller than anyone else’s beast—that was renowned for being able to lose any rider but Lerryn within ten heartbeats of mounting.

“We’re in trouble, people,” he said without preamble. “The Karsites have the main road blocked, the back way is full of foot troops, and the other four tracks in have watchers on them. We stayed till last to give the foot a head start and let our own scouts get in. Now it looks like we’re stuck. Suggestions?”

“East, for Karse,” Gies said. “They won’t be expecting that. And we found a game trail over the top of the cliff at the northeast end of the valley. We never bothered using it, ‘cause it’s a bitch to get up.”

“We’ll take it,” Lerryn said instantly. “Gies.”

The scout took the lead, the rest fell in behind him in a loose formation, as the last of the Wolflings vanished over the game trails. Kero wished luck on their departing backs.

They were all going to need it.

Twelve

There had been watchers on that game trail; not as many as on the other ways out, but enough. Gies thought he had all of them tagged, and Lerryn sent Skybolts out to take care of them—but either Gies had missed one, or someone slipped up. One of the watchers had gotten away from their counter-ambush.

No one knew until they’d gotten out of the valley and were headed toward one of the roads that would bring them back to safety. That was when they discovered that the Karsites had mounted skirmishers, too. With more bows, and faster horses, and—most telling of all—more men.

The escape had turned into a rout; fighting, then running, then fighting again. Somehow they all managed to stay together; desperation gave them speed and cunning they didn’t know they had. They managed to leave their attackers behind in confusion, giving them just enough lead to get reorganized.

They headed north at top speed, taking advantage of a stream to break their trail, at least temporarily. At sunset, Lerryn had split the force, taking half of them with him, leaving half with his second in command. Shallan and Relli had gone off with the Captain; Kero had stayed with Icolan Ar Perdin, the second, a dour little man who had survived more routs than Kero cared to think about. The half with Lerryn had ridden south; Icolan took his group northward again, and a little east.

They hoped to confuse their pursuers enough to give both halves time to get to safety. But bad luck followed Icolan’s troops, for the Karsites made up their minds quickly on discovering the split trail, and chose their half as the ones to follow.

Bad luck, or a curse, Kero thought, as she guided

Hellsbane afoot through the darkness, stumbling now and again over a root or a rock. Some of the others were already muttering things to that effect, for it seemed uncanny, the way the Karsites had been able to find them after the split. No matter what they did, how carefully they covered their trail, if they stopped to rest even for a moment, a scout sent along the backtrail would return with the unwelcome news that they were still being followed.

She held her mare’s rein loosely; Hellsbane’s ears and nose were infinitely superior to hers, and Hellsbane had twice been able to detect followers before Kero had.

Unless I unshielded, and looked for them with my thoughts. No—I’m afraid to. What if they’ve got someone stronger than me with them?

Warrl had warned her about the dangers of meeting someone unfriendly, with a far more powerful Gift. Such a one could take Kero over, hearing with her ears, seeing with her eyes.

For everyone’s sakes, I can’t take the chance, she decided. As long as I don’t crack my shields, I’m safe. If I do—I could be risking more than myself. I could betray the entire group.

That was something she would not chance, however tempting it was to use that ability of hers to check on their pursuers.

Hellsbane’s natural sensitivities of ear and nose were why they were tailmost, ready to call an alert in case the Karsites found them yet again.

It might have been a curse following them; it might also have been the workings of Sunlord Vkandis, the Karsite god. Kero was pretty certain that she had seen priestly sorts among those “bandits” but hadn’t had any hard evidence although she’d reported her suspicion. Lerryn had just shrugged; he’d never had any dealings with a deity or demi-deity, friendly or otherwise, and so was inclined to doubt the power of clerics. But Kero had a feeling that it had been the priests of the Sunlord that had gotten word back to Karse of the siege, and not by physical messengers, either. As Kero had every reason to know, there were other means of communication besides physical messengers.

They were practically on the Karsite Border, and Kero had heard from Tarma the kind of proprietary interest a deity could have for Her people—and the ways in which She could, if She chose, intervene—down on the Dhorisha Plains. If the Sunlord chose to enlighten His priests as to the location of their avowed enemies—well, it certainly wouldn’t be unheard of.

Or there was another, more arcane, explanation. The religion of the Sunlord forbade the use of magic. But the ability to work magic was both an inborn Gift as well as the result of study. So where did all the mages born in Karse go?

Kero had her suspicions, and had ever since she found out about the prohibition. The mages born with the Gift went into the priesthood, of course; the priests of the Sunlord could easily say their magics were god-granted miracles, and no one would be any the wiser.

That could be the other reason for being pursued; they could have a mage on their trail—and since the hedge-wizard Tarres had gone with Lerryn’s half of the Skybolts, it didn’t take much guessing to figure which half would be followed. The half without the mage attached would be much easier for another mage to track, especially since Tarres was undoubtedly working his earth-magics to hide the mercs from mage-sight. Kero had tried to communicate with her sword to get the damned thing to cover their trail magically, but it had been as unresponsive as an ordinary piece of steel.

The trail ahead opened up into a clearing; suddenly there were stars overhead instead of interlacing tree branches. Kero picked out the sounds of many horses and a few whispers, and deduced that Icolan had decided to halt them.

“What’s up?” she whispered, as soon as she came within range of the closest shadow-shape.

“Conference,” the shape whispered back, one hand on its horse’s nose to keep it silent. Not a halt for rest, then. That was a disappointment, but hardly a surprise. Kero turned Hellsbane around and pointed her head along the backtrail, making use of the mare’s superior senses to keep watch for the rest of the party. “Guard,” she said into the gray’s ear, and slipped the rein over her arm, leaving Hellsbane relatively free. While the mare guarded the trail with ears and nose, Kero slipped her water bottle off the front of the saddle and took a long-wished-for drink. Her stomach was too knotted with fear and tension to even think about eating, but some of the others had taken advantage of the brief rest to snatch a mouthful or feed a handful of grain to a horse.

Finally the word went around the circle; “There’s a fork in the game trail. We’re splitting again.”

Kero sighed; it was a logical move, but not one she relished. And it meant they’d be moving on into the night. She patted Hellsbane’s neck comfortingly; the mare wasn’t going to like this either.

They split twice more during the grueling, half-blind trek through the darkness, and when dawn trickled pale pink light over the hilltops and through the thick trees, there were no more than twenty riders left in Kero’s group. She didn’t know any of them terribly well, except for the leader, the head of all the scout-groups, a colorless woman known only as Lyr.

She mounted with the rest at Lyr’s signal, and they formed a group around her. “I know you’re all tired,” the scout-leader said in a flat voice, “But we still have at least one party on our tail. I’m going to try something; back there in the dark they may have lost track of who was following what, and if you’re with me on this, I want to head straight across the Border into Karse itself.”

The hard-bitten man in worn leathers on Kero’s right coughed as if he was holding back an exclamation or objection. Lyr turned her expressionless eyes on him for a moment.

“I know what you’re thinking, Tobe,” she said, with no sign of rancor. “You’re thinking I’m crazy. Can’t say I blame you. Here’s my thought: if we head straight across the Border, open like, and stop trying to hide the backtrail, they may think they’ve gotten confused in the dark and they’re following one of their own groups. Border won’t be patrolled that thickly here; they save the heavy patrols for farther in.”

“They do?” said a stocky girl that had just joined before the beginning of this campaign, a brown-haired, brown-eyed, brown-skinned girl with “farmer” all over her. But she had to be good, or she wouldn’t be a Skybolt. “Why?”

“Bandits,” Lyr said succinctly. “Real ones. Karsites let ’em stay here, both to confuse the issue when their regulars come across raiding, and to discourage their own people from trying to cross over into someplace else. So there’s a kind of buffer zone along here that the Karsite patrols don’t bother with.”

The girl nodded, her lips tightening a little. “Which means that’s something we’ll have to look out for, too.”

Lyr shrugged. “It’s them, or the real Karsites behind us. Bandits would only kill us if we lost.”

“A good point,” the girl replied bleakly, and from her tone, Kero guessed that this was yet another Skybolt who had personal experience of the Karsites.

“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Kero said quietly when Lyr looked to her, and she saw several others nodding, including the brown girl.

“Then let’s go for it.” Lyr turned her horse around, and sent the beast trotting east, toward the Border. During the night, they had gone from dry, scrub-covered hills to lusher lands, thickly covered with the kind of trees Kero felt justified in calling a “tree.” The hills were taller, too, and although they were also rockier and more precipitous, the soil seemed richer here. If this was the kind of territory Karse was trying to claim, Kero could understand their reasoning, although she obviously couldn’t agree with it. Within a few furlongs, the game trail came out above a real trail, one with the signs of shod hoofprints on it. Instead of avoiding the trail, as they had been, Lyr led them right down onto it, and they rode along single file as if they belonged here. Kero, who was riding tail again, had to keep reminding herself not to turn and look behind. It felt as if there were eyes and arrows trained on her back the moment they broke out of cover, even though she knew their followers couldn’t possibly have gotten within line-of-sight yet.

Only the presence of birds and an occasional rabbit or squirrel along the trail gave her any feeling of real comfort. If there had been someone ahead of them, there wouldn’t be any birds to startle up as they were doing. If there was someone following them off the trail, the birds would be similarly disturbed—and the only birds on the wing Kero saw were those who were going about normal business, not those whose straight-line flights showed them to be frightened into taking wing.

She saw Lyr watching the birds, too, and coming to the same conclusions, for the scout leader’s shoulders relaxed marginally.

Gradually, as the morning lengthened, and the sun rose above the trees, she lost that feeling of having watchers behind her. Lyr stopped the group from time to time—but she didn’t send one of the others back to look for pursuers as Kero had expected she would; she went herself. The first two times she returned with the faintest of frowns, but the third, just before noon, she returned with just as faint a smile.

She let them all stop when their path intersected with a clear, cold river, which horses and riders were equally grateful for. She didn’t say anything, but everyone knew; they were no longer being followed, and it was safe to rest for a little, eat, and rest and water the horses.

Watering the horses came first for all of them. At the beginning of their flight, quite a few of the Skybolts had remounts with them—very few horses had the stamina of Hellsbane, and most scouts had two or even three extras. Now those remounts were gone, lost in the fighting, and after a steady night of riding, the beasts were weary. Not lathered, but worn, without any reserves. When Lyr finished watering her horse, unsaddled and quietly tethered it and spread some grain for it to eat, the rest of the group sighed with relief and followed her example. Their horses were their life—and it had worried all of them to have to treat them this way.

“Who wasn’t out yesterday?” Lyr asked, and got four hands in reply. “All right,” she said. “You four are first guard. Wake four more about mid-afternoon—who’re my volunteers?” Kero was about to raise her hand, but someone else beat her to it. So instead, she tethered Hellsbane, munched a handful of dried fruit, and laid herself down on what looked like bracken with her bedroll for a pillow, pausing only long enough to loosen the straps of her armor a little. She was asleep as soon as she’d wriggled into a marginally comfortable position.

It seemed as if she’d just closed her eyes, but when she woke to a hand shaking her right shoulder—right was for “safe” waking, left for when you wanted someone to wake up quickly and quietly because of a bad situation—she sat up and rubbed her eyes without a grumble. Her waker was Tobe, and he smiled sympathetically as she blinked at him. However short a time it had seemed, the sun was a lot farther west than it had been when she’d dropped off to sleep, and there was no doubt she’d gotten the full amount of rest promised.

Satisfied that she was awake, Tobe moved on to the next fallen body. Kero levered herself up out of the bracken, wincing a little at bruises and rubbed places, and glad she was still too young to suffer from joint-ache from sleeping on the ground. And gods be thanked for keeping me in one piece through all this—may you continue to do so! She walked stiffly to streamside, up current of where the horses were, and knelt down on a wide, flat stone on the bank. Tobe joined her as she gathered a double-handful of cold water and splashed it over her face. It felt wonderful, especially on her gritty eyes.

“Fill your water skin,” he advised. “Lyr says we’re right off our maps, and she has no idea when we’ll hit water next.”

Kero nodded, and splashed her face again, wishing she dared bathe. Going dirty could be dangerous as well as unpleasant; if the enemy used dogs or pigs as guards, or if their horses were trained (as was Hellsbane) to go alert at an unfamiliar scent, you were a fool not to bathe as often as you could.

But there was no hope for it; there was no time. She compromised by taking just long enough to strip off her armor and change the tunic and shirt underneath; Lyr and several of the others were already doing the same, so it was safe to assume she wouldn’t take Kero’s head off for causing an unnecessary delay. Dirty shirt and tunic were rolled as small as possible and went into the bottom of the pack.

Food and drink came next; Hellsbane got her full ration of grain first, plus Kero pulled a good armful of grass for her, then Kero dug out a handful of dried meat and another of dried fruit. She resaddled Hellsbane while both of them were eating, promising the mare a good grooming as soon as possible. A kettle was making the rounds; when she accepted it from the brown girl, it proved to be half full of some kind of herb tea. Kero raised an eyebrow at her, but the girl shrugged; so Kero dipped the tin cup in it and drank it down.

It was feka-lea; double-strength and unsweetened, it was bitter as death and a powerful stimulant. Some of the scouts used it on long patrols; Lyr must have found someone with a supply—assuming she didn’t have any herself—and made up a sun-brew while they all slept. A black kettle left in the sun to steep made tea as strong as anything boiled, and Lyr was too canny to risk a fire. They’d probably all need this tea before the night was over; too little sleep had killed plenty of times, as someone nodded out and fell behind the rest on a trek like this one.

When the kettle finished its round, Lyr took it from the last to drink and beckoned them all close to her; they stood shoulder to shoulder in a huddle, like children before a game. “We’re in Karse now, in the buffer zone,” she said quietly. “There’ll be no fires while we’re here, nothing to bring us to the attention of anyone—a Karsite patrol wouldn’t have a fire either; they make cold camps always unless they’re in a siege. We’re going a little farther east, riding this trail until just after sunset. Then we’ll be turning north, through the night, then west as soon as we hit anything that looks like a road. Once we start going west, we’ll be traveling entirely by night. The Karsites do that, sometimes, and it’ll be harder for someone to tell that we aren’t a patrol of theirs if we meet ’em after dark. If that happens, is there anybody who speaks Karsite better than me?”

The brown girl spoke up. “Me mum’s Karsite,” she offered.

“Can you give me a bit of a speech about going west to harass the heathen, with all the Sunlord crap attached?”

The girl spouted off a bit of liquid gabble; difficult to believe that a people as intransigent and violent as the Karsites had such a beautiful language. Kero didn’t understand it, but Lyr evidently did; she nodded in satisfaction. “Better than me by a good furlong; right, if we run into a patrol, you’re the leader. Think you can reckon what to tell ’em without me coachin’ you?”

“Aye,” the girl asserted sturdily, blushing a bit. “Mum useta tell us what them officers was like—bit like the Rethwellan reg’lars, only stuffed full of that religious dung and stricter about orders and rules. So long as I keep insisten’ it’s orders we’re followin’, and praise Vkandis often enough, should be all right. The half of ’em can’t read nor write, so havin’ verbal orders isn’t going to make ’em think twice.”

Lyr looked satisfied, and patted the girl on the shoulder. “Right, then, let’s mount up and make some time.”

They turned to their horses—and that was when Hellsbane flung up her head and screamed a warning.

Kero didn’t even stop to think; she just threw herself across the clearing and into the saddle. She didn’t quite make it before the horse lunged; she only got halfway over, clinging with both hands and gritting her teeth as the mare threw herself sideways to avoid a swung ax. The ground had sprouted armed men, it seemed—Hellsbane’s scream had been the only warning before the attack. Lyr must have left someone as a guard, but just as surely, those guards were dead now.

Hellsbane pivoted. Kero managed to use the mare’s momentum to swing herself properly up into the saddle; she pulled Need then, and looked for a target. Battle fever took over; she was wide awake and alert, feeling as fresh as if she’d risen from a feather bed with a full night’s sleep behind her. There was someone else operating behind her eyes now, someone who took a fierce enjoyment in dealing death and evading it. Later, she’d be tired and a little sick—but not now. Not now, when her heart raced and the blood sang in her ears, and everything seemed sharper and clearer than it ever was outside of a fight....

She had plenty of targets to choose from. As motley as these attackers were, they had to be real bandits, but they outnumbered the Skybolts, and they knew how to fight. In general, a mounted fighter has the advantage over an unmounted man, but these bandits knew how to negate that advantage.

In fact, even as she looked for a target, she spotted a snaggle-toothed, bearded man swinging for Kero with a hooked pike designed to catch in her armor and unhorse her.

Assuming Hellsbane let him....

The mare saw him as soon as Kero did; she reared a little in place, to warn her rider, then reared to her full height, flailing out with both hooves and crow-hopping forward on her hind legs as she did so. He was not expecting that, and froze, mouth open, staring at the horse. Those powerful hooves caught and splintered the pike, then came down squarely on the head of the wielder.

He collapsed, going down without a sound. Hellsbane dropped down on his body, just to make sure of him; then spun on her hindquarters to take out the ax-wielder she’d evaded earlier with her formidable teeth, while Kero took care of a sword-bearer who had come up on the opposite side. The fool shouldn’t have been flinging a sword around his head; Kero took off the swordsman’s hand, while Hellsbane snapped inches away from the axman’s face. The axman tried to get out of her way, stumbled backward and fell, and she surged forward to trample him.

A large shadow—hoofbeats—Kero sensed someone coming up from behind, but Hellsbane was already ahead of her; the mare lashed out with her hindfeet and caught another horse squarely in the jaw. Kero clung to the saddle while the mare pivoted again, quick as a snake, bringing her into striking position as the injured horse started to stumble. Hellsbane lashed out with forehooves this time, and caught the horse in the neck and shoulder. The other horse started to fall. The rider was flailing both arms for balance, and wide open; Kero’s slash opened his stomach, leather armor and all. Hellsbane scrambled over their bodies, pivoted again, and Kero found herself facing a pair of swordsmen.

This time she signaled Hellsbane to charge them; they weren’t quite ready, and she figured they’d scatter if they saw the mare coming for them. They did; Kero cut at one as she passed, though she didn’t think she’d done him any real damage.

That gave her a bit of breathing space, and now that she had a chance to look up, she saw that she was alone, and no longer in the clearing. The others were just barely within sight, far downstream. Somehow she’d gotten separated from them—and it seemed as if the bandits thought she was a far better prospect and were concentrating their efforts on her.

Maybe it’s Hellsbane, she thought, parrying yet another sword-stroke, just now noticing that her arm was getting tired and heavy. She’s a tempting target, even if they don’t know what she is. Dear gods, what am I thinking? I’ve got to get back to the rest!

She urged the mare in the direction of the others, but once again they were cut off, and Kero had a confusing impression of being forced, step by step, toward the bank of the river.

The river! If I can get to it, I’ll at least have one direction they can’t come at me from!

She gave Hellsbane the signal; the mare needed no further urging. She gathered herself and surged toward the beckoning water, while the bandits tried to intercept them. She wouldn’t have any of it; though they prevented her from making that bank, she got within a few feet, running two of the bandits right off the bank in the process. She screamed, and rushed again, heading farther downstream, away from the vanishing Skybolts, but once more toward the riverbank.

Kero blinked as they burst through the brush and came out on a low bluff above the water. This didn’t seem to be the same river they’d camped beside; it was much wider and deeper, the opposite side farther than Kero would care to swim, seeing how rapid the current was. But this higher bluff made a good place to make a stand—

Hellsbane had other ideas. She had no intention of stopping on the top of the bluff. She plowed through the last of the bushes, kept charging straight on, and plunged over the edge, headfirst into the cold water.

“Well,” Kero said to her horse, as she was wringing out her shirt, “At least we lost them.”

Hellsbane munched soaked grain and dry grass, stolidly ignoring the results of Kero’s none-too-gentle ministrations. The mare had quite a few wounds after the encounter; cuts and slashes, and a few scrapes. None of her injuries were too deep, but Kero had stitched them anyway. Hellsbane was amazingly good about being doctored; she didn’t even object too strenuously to having minor wounds stitched up.

As for herself, she’d come out of it pretty much unscathed—other than being half-drowned. Soaked, but unwounded. Bruised and battered by the rocks in the river, tired to death and cold. She hadn’t lost any equipment this time, which was no small blessing, but she was completely lost.

She had no idea of where she could be, either. She had a vague idea of where they had gone in, at least in relation to a mental map she’d been constructing, but once off that map, she might as well have been on the other side of the world. The river’s powerful current had swept them downstream, to the south, the opposite direction she’d last seen the rest of the troop heading. Hellsbane had hit the water right where it swirled away from the bank in an irresistible flow, and once out of the grip of it, she could not get the mare turned to take the western bank that she’d jumped from. There was no help for it; the mare was convinced that the western bank held nothing but enemies and would not swim back to it. Kero had given up, and let her make for the opposite shore. By the time Hellsbane had made the eastern bank, they’d been carried at least a league downstream.

Now the western sky was a bloody red above the trees; night would be falling soon, and she was out in the middle of Karsite territory, completely alone, with every possession she still owned soaked through and through. Even if she’d had a map, it wouldn’t have survived.

There were a few notable exceptions to the destruction; her bow had been wrapped in oiled cloth, which had fortunately survived the plunge. It was all right, as were her little medical pack and her fire kit. But everything else was a wet mess. Unfortunately, that included the rations.

The journey-bread was inedible; the rest, jerked meat and dried fruit, and Hellsbane’s grain, was in a sad state. The little that was left would last a couple of days before going bad; after that, she and Hellsbane would have to live off the land.

“I could look on the bright side,” she said to the mare. “At least we have water. And I got that bath.”

But I’m cold now, with no chance to warm up. The best I can do is wring my clothes as dry as I can, stuff myself on what food hasn’t been ruined, and walk Hells-bane north. If I’m lucky, my clothes will dry on me without sending me into a chill.

Then she thought better of that idea. There’s only me, and no road. Maybe not. Maybe I’d just better see if I can’t rig up a shelter and try for a trail or a path in the morning.

Tarma had taught her how to rig a shelter in about any territory; in a forest, it wasn’t too difficult a task. A little work with her ax and she had enough supple willow and pine branches to weave into a lean-to. As the last sliver of the sun vanished on the horizon, she fabricated a woven mat that should cut the wind, and shed most of the rain if she happened to be completely out of luck. With the last of the light she gathered dry leaves and layered first leaves, then all her clothing, then another layer of leaves beneath it. The water-soaked jerky was even less appetizing than it was when dry, but she wolfed it down anyway. It was still food, and if she didn’t eat it, she’d have to throw it away.

She hung Hellsbane’s saddle blanket under a bush, and turned the saddle upside down to dry.

That was all she could do at this point, except to tell Hellsbane, “Guard.” The mare went on the alert, and Kero crawled into her bit of shelter, already shivering. She was sure she’d never get warm, and equally certain she’d never sleep.

She was wrong on both points.

“North or south?” she asked Hellsbane. The mare flicked her ears forward but made no commentary.

Her clothing was dry, her bedroll still soggy. Hellsbane’s blanket was dry, though, so after she saddled the mare and strapped the packs on her, she opened up the bedding and draped it over Hellsbane’s rump, like a pathetic attempt at barding. The mare craned her head around for a look, and snorted in disgust.

There was a vague tugging sensation that Kero recognized as coming from Need. West, it urged. She took one look at the river, even wider here than where she’d gone in, and told it to hold its tongue. Or whatever it used for one.

She mounted, settling herself over bedding and all, hoping they wouldn’t encounter anything unfriendly. If they had to make a run for it, they’d lose the bedroll.

“South, I guess,” she said out loud. “I haven’t a chance of catching up with the others, and they won’t wait for me. We were going north and east, so if I go south and can get back across this river, I should be in the right area to make for the Border again.”

Nothing answered her, not even a bird. She could hear birds elsewhere, off in the forest, but her movements had frightened them into silence here.

It made her feel like a creature of ill-omen, a harbinger of death. Something even the birds avoided—

Until she caught sight of a bold green-crested jay swooping down out of the trees to steal a bit of the ruined, discarded journey-bread.

Then she laughed, shakily, and cast off her feelings of impending disaster. Hellfires, she thought, as the mare picked her way between the trees, I’ve already had my quota of disasters. I should be about due for some good luck.

But the imp of the perverse wasn’t finished with her yet—or else, perhaps, there truly was a curse in operation. She found a path—a well-worn path leading from the river—and followed it just out of sight, afoot, leaving Hellsbane tethered in a safe place hidden by the underbrush. It was just as well that she hid the horse—because the path led to a village, one with formidable walls, and the village was placed across the only real road south.

She discovered, by watching the place for half the morning, that it was a very active village—the headquarters, so it seemed, for the local Karsite patrols. The riders coming in and going out were not in uniform, but they rode with military discipline and precision, and Kero twice saw priestly robes among them.

She cursed to herself, but crawled back to where she had left Hellsbane and retraced her steps to her cold camp, where she destroyed every sign that a scout had been there. There was no hiding the fact that someone had been here, but she did her best to make it look as if the camp might have been the work of children.

I only hope that Karsite younglings run off to play soldier in the woods the way we did, she thought grimly, as she sent Hellsbane picking her way through the forest, trying to keep her on things that wouldn’t show hoof-prints—stone, pine needles, and the like. She’d muffled the mare’s hooves in leather bags, which should confuse things a little, but Hellsbane hated the “boots” and Kero wouldn’t be able to keep them on her for very long.

The river turned west, but the terrain forming its bank worsened and they had to leave it and move farther east. By mid-afternoon they hit another trail. This one also had the tracks of horse hooves on it, but they were broad hooves, unshod, and hopefully marked only the passage of farm animals.

Late afternoon brought increasing signs of habitation, and once again Kero tethered the mare deep in the brush and went on alone, afoot.

The territory away from the river was turning drier; there were woods down in the valleys, but the hills themselves supported mostly grass and bushes. She climbed a tree when she picked up sounds of humans at work, and realized, as she surveyed this newest village from the shelter of its highest boughs, that this change of vegetation was going to make traveling even more difficult. It would be hard to stay hidden, and impossible to disguise the mare as anything but what she was.

This village was much smaller than the first, and did not appear to be harboring any of the Karsite forces other than a single priest. He herded every soul in the village into the center of town as the sun went down, leading them in a long—and evidently boring—religious service. Kero snickered a little, watching some of the worshipers nodding off in the middle of the priest’s main speech.

When the last edge of the scarlet sun finally sank below the horizon, he let them go. They lost no time in seeking their own little cottages.

Kero watched them until full dark, then went back for Hellsbane, satisfied that no one would be stirring out of doors except to visit the privy. As darkness covered the cottages, her sharp ears had caught the sounds of bars being dropped over doorways all across the village. These people feared the dark and what it held—therefore darkness was her friend.

Therefore I won’t be getting any sleep tonight, she added with a sigh, as she took Hellsbane’s reins in her hand and moved cautiously toward the sleeping village, walking on the side of the road and ready to pull the mare into cover at the first sign of life other than herself. I wonder how they get the troops to travel at night if the common folk are so afraid of the dark?

Then, again, maybe the troops are what they’re afraid of.

The village itself was not the kind of untidy sprawl of houses she was used to; this place was a compact huddle of thirty or forty single-storied cottages, mostly alike, ranged on three sides of the village square. The fourth side was taken up by four larger homes, and what Kero presumed to be the temple, and the entire village was surrounded by an area that had been cleared entirely of brush and trees, leaving nothing but grass. The arrangement made it possible for her to skirt the edge of the village without leaving the shelter of the trees, and still see anything moving among the houses.

The place was uncanny, that much was certain. Once again she had the feeling that there were eyes out there, but this time she also had the feeling those eyes were somehow missing her. There was definitely something in that village; something that held the inhabitants silent and hidden in their houses, something that scanned the night for anything that didn’t belong there. Like me, she thought, glad she’d put Hellsbane’s “boots” back on, and equally glad that the mare was too well-trained to give her away with a whicker to the farm beasts. It’s looking for something like me, only it can’t find me. Maybe—maybe Need’s finally doing something. Damned if I’m going to drop shields to find out!

It seemed to take half the night to creep past the village; and once past, she didn’t relax her vigilance in the least. She stayed in the shadow of the trees for furlongs, then she mounted the mare and rode out on the road to the east, and she didn’t leave that cover, not even when the village was long past.

That vigilance paid off shortly before dawn, when she thought she heard hoofbeats ahead of her. The sound faded after only an instant, but she found a gap in the brush and dismounted to lead the mare into its concealment. There she waited.

And waited.

She began to feel like a fool, but not even that would send her out onto the road again before she knew without a shadow of a doubt that there was no one else on it.

Then—she felt that searching again, and froze. Once again it passed over her, but she felt as helpless as a mouse stuck in an open field, knowing there’s a hawk overhead ready to stoop the moment it moves.

The feeling passed, but before she could take Hellsbane out onto the road, she heard hoofbeats, the same as before, but much nearer—practically on top of her position. Some quirk of the hills echoed them up in time to warn me, she realized numbly. Blessed Agnira! If I hadn’t heard them

It was a long time before she could convince herself to move.

East and north, a little west, then north again; never any closer to her goal, never any idea of where she really was. She was in sheep country now—there were fewer priests, which was a blessing, but shepherds are lonely and inquisitive folk, the kind she wanted to avoid at all costs.

Twice she dropped all caution and used her Gift to help her raid farms for food. Each time she felt that searching “eye” pass over her some time later, as if she had inadvertently set off some kind of alarm by her use of Thoughtsensing. After the second time, she resolved to tighten her belt further. Nothing was worth feeling that presence out there, looking for her.

Hellsbane was a hardy soul, and could live quite happily on grass alone since she wasn’t seeing heavy activity. In fact, fully half the time Kero walked and led her instead of riding, especially at night.

She slept by day, whenever she could find cover enough to hide the mare. She dreamed almost every night; vague, odd dreams involving Need, Need and an old woman, and a very young girl barely into her teens. They weren’t very coherent dreams, and they involved things that seemed to be right out of the wildest of legends, so far in the past that they bordered on incomprehensible.

It was after the first of those dreams that she encountered the first priestess—as opposed to priest—of Vkandis.

She had slept most of the day, knowing that there was another village to pass that night, and at sundown had worked her way down toward that village to keep watch until everyone was safely tucked up for the night. Right on schedule, a cowled and robed figure appeared from the rock-walled temple and assembled the villagers. She wondered idly if this village’s sunset service was going to be as dull as the other ones she’d overseen when the figure threw back its cowl to reveal a head of wild, scarlet curls and an unmistakably feminine face.

Shock held her in place; further shock kept her frozen for a moment, as the priestess raised her head and stared directly at the place where she lay concealed.

Only the sun saved her; there was a service to conduct, and Kero was under the impression that if there was an earthquake, battle-charge or erupting volcano in progress at sunset, the followers of Vkandis would still conduct their devotions to the last ray of light.

Halfway into the service, Kero managed to shake off her paralysis, and crawl back to where she’d left Hellsbane tethered. This time she did not wait until sunset; she mounted Hellsbane and rode farther eastward, giving the village a wide berth, and pulling every trick Tarma had ever taught her to confuse and conceal her trail.

Thereafter, following every one of those dreams, she’d encounter a female devotee of Vkandis. And every single one of them seemed able to detect either her, or the sword.

It was unnerving, not the least because she hadn’t known—nor had anyone else to her knowledge—that there were women placed so highly in Vkandis’ priesthood. Up until this time everyone she’d ever talked to had spoken of the cult as being exclusively male, and certainly the little anyone outside of Karse knew of it painted the credo as being thoroughly misogynistic.

Certainly the Karsites had very little use for women in general, and positively despised fighting women like the ones in the ranks of the Skybolts, reserving particularly gruesome treatment for them when caught.

And yet—the order of Vkandis was a militant order. Every one of the women Kero had seen had worn a sword. The order of Vkandis deplored the use of magic—yet she had felt magic searching for her, and these women seemed perfectly willing to employ something like enough to magic as to make no difference.

It appeared that whatever the outside world knew of Karse and the state religion, there were things going on within it that were not to be discovered until one penetrated into the country itself. What those things meant, Kero had no idea, except that she had better keep her head down and her behind well-hidden, or she wasn’t going to be telling anyone of her discoveries. Except, perhaps, an inquisitor.

I think I’ve been in hiding forever, she thought dispiritedly, from her concealment among the rocks above the road. Sundown would be soon, and then she could get on her way.

For all the good it does me.

Hoof beats signaled a Karsite patrol; she’d learned that the military were the only groups that traveled mounted. She watched yet another of those woman-priests riding by her, this one evidently in too much of a hurry to do more than raise her head in startlement as she passed Kero’s hiding place in the rocks above the road. And once again, she wondered what the presence of high-ranking women in the priesthood meant.

Maybe all that it means is that they haven’t much use for women except inside boundaries. Like it’s fine for women to do anything for the glory of the Sunlord, but outside the priesthood they’d better not even think of doing anything besides stay at home and breed more worshipers for the Sunlord....

Not for the first time, she wondered if she ought to abandon Need. She’d had half a dozen very narrow escapes so far, and she had the feeling that the only reason she hadn’t been caught was the blade’s belated realization that just because these were women, they were not friendly toward Need’s current bearer.

But if she did abandon it, the thing would only end up in the hands of some poor, ignorant child, who would very probably be dead the first time one of the male priests took advantage of his power and position to abuse one of his flock. Kero had long ago realized the same thing could have happened to her if Tarma hadn’t been playing guardian that night. The blade had no sense of proportion, and seemed to have a varying regard for the safety and health of its bearer.

Or worse, the thing could end up in the hands of one of these priestesses, and Kero couldn’t even guess what would happen then.

Anything, she reflected, brooding down on the now empty road. I think Need is a whole lot older than even Grandmother guessed. That probably accounts for a lot of the things it does. Anything that old has a set of priorities and plans that are a whole lot different from those of us who’re likely to die if someone puts a hole in us.

In fact, the more she thought about it, the easier it was to imagine some of the things it was likely to do.

Take over one of those priestesses and lead a religious crusade, for one thing. The Karsites tend to go in for that sort of amusement in a big way. Seems to me that was how the Sunlord ended up as the state religion in the first place. At least I think I remember one of those history books saying something like that; and that’s when the Karsites really got strange.

She snorted to herself. Figures. Make someone a devout, fanatical anything, and his brain turns to mulch. Well, I sure’s fire don’t want to be the cause of another crusade among the Karsites.

And there was no indication the sword would even let her go in the first place. If she tried to abandon it, she might end up in agony.

Dusk was falling, and it was time to be on her way. Over the past few days, the sparsely-forested hills had been giving way to pine groves, with mountains looming up in the distance. Kero had the feeling she was very near the Karse-Valdemar border; she was certainly far enough north.

She’d never expected to get up here in her lifetime.

I wish to hell I wasn’t here now.

She put her head down on her arms, and allowed herself a painful lump in her throat. I want home, I want out of here! she wailed inside her mind. I want to see the winter quarters, and Shallan, and Tre—I want cooked food and a real bed—I want a bath—I want to sleep without having to wake every few breaths because I think I hear something

She was tired right down to the bone, and her nerves were like red-hot wire. She started out of sleep lately at the least little sound, but she knew if she didn’t keep herself at this kind of a pitch, she’d lie down one night and wake only with the point of a Karsite sword in her throat.

But worse than the rest was despair, the feeling that she’d never get back, never see familiar faces again, never see home, or what passed for it. And the loneliness. She’d thought she was cold, unfeeling—now she knew differently. She might not need people as desperately as Shallan did, but she needed them all the same.

Usually she could shake the mood after letting it have her for a few moments, but not tonight. Tonight despair followed her down off of the hill to the little valley and the brook she’d left Hellsbane tied beside. It rode as her companion, unseen, but profoundly felt, as she followed behind the Karsite patrol—behind always being the safest place to be, with the Karsites. It covered her with a gloom as thick as the dusk—and it was almost the death of her.

It was only when Hellsbane snorted and balked, and the sword threw a jab of agony into her head, that she pulled up and realized that there were voices ahead of her. She rode Hellsbane off into the forest, and dismounted, leading the horse quietly under the pines and up onto a tiny game trail above the floor of the valley and the road running through it. The crushed pine needles gave off a sharp scent that made her pause for a moment. That scent could disguise the mare’s and make it possible for them to work around the patrol ahead of them without alerting the Karsites’ horses.

She took handfuls of needles stripped from the bough, crushed them between her palm and her armor, and rubbed the resulting mass over Hellsbane’s coat. The mare sneezed once and gave Kero a rather astonished look, but didn’t really seem to object.

That accomplished, she spotted a good place to overlook the road; tethered the mare, and wriggled her way down to it on her stomach.

A rock outcropping offered little in the way of concealment, but the dusk itself provided that. She got into place just in time to see the patrol that had passed her earlier, returning with a prisoner.

A very obvious prisoner; a man, tied to the saddle of a much-abused mule. A man dressed entirely in white.

Thirteen

Something about the white uniform tugged at a half-buried memory in the back of her weary mind. Something to do with a priesthood? No, that can’t be it....

She was still trying to make the connection, when she saw something else moving below her; something moving so silently that if it hadn’t been for the color—or lack of it—she’d never have spotted it. And if it hadn’t been for the man, she wouldn’t have thought—“horse”—she’d have thought—“ghost.”

Or fog. That was what it resembled; a bit of fog slipping through the trees.

But put white-clad man together with white horse, and even a tired, numb-brained merc knew what that meant. This prisoner was one of the Heralds, out of Valdemar.

And the Karsites appreciated the Heralds even less than they appreciated female fighters.

That horse is no horse at all, at least not according to Tarma, she thought, keeping her eyes glued to the vague white shape as it flitted from one bit of cover to another. She said it was—leshy’a, I think. A spirit. Huh. Looks pretty solid for a spirit. Doesn’t look particularly magical, either.

The Karsite troop had stopped in the middle of the road, and were conferring quietly, with anxious looks cast up at the mountainside above them, and back behind them, where they had been. The—what was it?—Companion, she remembered now—the Companion froze where it was. The man seemed oblivious to it all, slumped in his saddle—but Kero had the oddest feeling that he wasn’t as badly hurt or as unaware as he seemed.

But it’s going to take a lot more than wits and a magic horse to get you out of this one, my friend, she told him silently. An army would be nice. Or at least one friend free and able to convince the Karsites he is an army.

Or she—

Instantly she berated herself for thinking like a fool. This man had no claim on her or her sympathy. Valdemar hired no mercs, and probably never would. She had no loyalty to his land and no personal feeling for him ... except that the Karsites were not going to be gentle with him. And there but for Need and the blessings of the gods, rode she....

Damn it, you’re almost out of here! You aren’t an army, you aren’t even in good fighting shape right now, and he isn’t a female, so Need won’t give a fat damn about him.

The priestess gave a peremptory order, cutting off all further discussion. The rest of the party dismounted and began leading their horses off into a little blind canyon, probably to make camp, while she took charge of the prisoner. She rode up beside him, pulled his head up by the hair, and slapped his face, so hard it rocked him in his saddle—he would have fallen but for the grip she had on his hair. The slap echoed among the rocks as she let go, and he slumped forward over the pommel. Even as far away as Kero was, there was no mistaking the priestess’ smile of cruel anticipation.

Kero made up her mind then and there. Fine. He’s a Herald. There’s probably going to be a reward if I rescue him, and even if there isn’t, he can get me out of here through Valdemar. I’m getting him away from that bitch.

Part of her yammered at the back of her mind, telling her that she was insane for doing this, for even thinking about rescuing the stranger. After all, she wasn’t in the clear yet, she was all alone, and the idea of rescuing someone else was sheerest suicide.

She ignored that part of herself, and wriggled backward, keeping herself right down on the rock and ignoring scrapes, until she was out of sight of the road. But though she ignored good sense, she did not ignore caution—there was no telling if the Karsites had deployed a scout to check the woods. She kept as low and as quiet as a hunted rabbit, slipping from one bit of cover to the next, working her way toward Hellsbane by a circuitous, spiraling route.

The woods seemed empty of everything but birds—of course, another scout, a good one, might not have disturbed them any more than Kero did. Still, there was no one out here that she could spot, which probably meant that the Karsites felt secure enough not to bother with perimeter checks. Which meant they also might not bother with perimeter guards. If so, her task took on the aura of the “possible.”

When she reached her horse, she tied up Hellsbane’s stirrups, fastening them to the saddle, before muffling the mare’s hooves in her “boots.” Hellsbane pricked up her ears at that; she knew very well what it meant, though it wasn’t something Kero did often. She was to guard Kero’s back, following her like a dog, until Kero needed her. Tarma had drilled both of them remorselessly in this maneuver; it wasn’t something every warsteed could learn to do, but Hellsbane was both obedient and inquisitive, and those were marker traits for a mare that could learn the trick. Hellsbane had learned her lessons well.

The priestess and her charge had already moved on, but it wasn’t at all hard to guess where they had gone—even Lordan could have figured it out. The troop had trampled down vegetation on both sides of that little path leading off the main road. Kero waited, watched and listened long enough for her nerves to start screaming. She crossed the road in a rush, like a startled deer, then went up the side of the hill, planning to follow their trail from above. Hellsbane followed, making no more noise than she did.

She found them at the end of the path, bivouacked in a little blind canyon, thick with trees. And by now the sun was setting somewhere beyond the trees; it was slowly growing darker. That was bad enough—it was going to be damned difficult to get him loose in a setup like that, and harder still to get him out—but worse was that there were more of them now than she’d seen in the original group. Where they came from, or whether they were already here when the priestess and her charge arrived, she had no idea.

It didn’t much matter. The odds had just jumped from five to one to about twenty to one.

Hellfires, she thought, watching some of the “new” ones tie their prisoner “securely.” The Karsite idea of “secure” was enough to make her joints ache in sympathy; ankles tied to wide-set stakes, arms bound behind his back over a thick tree limb, wrists secured to ankles so that his only possible posture was kneeling, and no position could be comfortable, even if he was as boneless as Tre.

That was no way to treat anyone you intended to keep for very long. Which argued that they didn’t intend to keep him for very long.

I can still walk away from this, she told herself, settling her chin on her hands, the smell of old leaves thick in her nostrils. I’m not involved yet. They haven’t seen me, and not even his horse knows I’m there—and he isn’t a woman, so Need won’t give me any trouble about leaving him....

But the more she saw, the less palatable the idea of leaving him in their hands became. Whatever else he was, this Herald was a fellow human being, and a pretty decent one if all the things Tarma and Kethry had said about his kind were true. From the look of things, the priestess was about to try a little interrogation, and Kero knew what that meant. She’d seen the results of one of those sessions, and was not minded to leave even a stranger to face it.

Besides, if these bastards were stopping this close to the Border to question him, there must be an urgent reason to do so. Which meant that the reward for his release would be a good one, and the information he held in his head must be valuable to someone. And if she could get him loose, he must know the quickest way out of Karse and across that Border into Valdemar, where she’d be safe, if not welcome.

And from there she could get home....

That clinched it, the thought of “home” set up a longing so strong it overwhelmed any other consideration.

There has to be a way, she thought darkly. There has to be. She watched through narrowed eyes as the woman rolled up the arms of her robes and picked up one of the irons she’d placed in the fire, examining it critically, then replacing it. Huh. So far, that priestess hasn’t even looked up once. So either she can’t sense me, or Need—or whichever of us these women are somehow detecting—or else she’s too busy. Either way, if I’m very careful, I might be able to do a little reading of their thoughts. Maybe I’ll overhear something that’ll help.

She unshielded carefully, a little bit at a time, and sent a delicate wisp of thought drifting down among them, the barest possible disturbance of the currents down there—

And suddenly her little finger of thought was seized and held in a desperate mental grip.

Blessed Agnira! Panic gave her strength she didn’t know she had. She snatched her mind away, and lay facedown in the leaves, heart pounding wildly with fear. Her first, panicked thought was that it was the priestess; her second, that it was some other mage down below there. But there was no sign of disturbance in the camp, and no one shouted a warning or pointed in the direction of her hiding place. She throttled down her panic, and extended her probe a second time, “looking” for the presence that had seized her.

It snatched for her again, a little less wildly, but no less desperate.

:Who are you?: she thought, forming her statement clearly, as Warrl had taught her.

:Eldan. Who are you? I thought I was the only one out here!:

:Kerowyn—:

:You have to help me get loose,: he demanded, interrupting her, his mental voice voice shaking, but firm beneath the fear. :I’ve got to get back to report!:

:Fine,: she told him. :What’s it worth to you? Or should I say, to Valdemar?:

That stopped him. :What?: He seemed baffled rather than shocked. He literally did not understand what she meant; that was crystal clear from his thoughts.

:What is it worth to you to be freed? How much,: she repeated patiently. :Money, my friend. What’s the reward for getting you loose? I’m not in this for my health. There’re easier ways of making a living :

:!—: he faltered, :I—I thought you were a Herald—:

Silence then, as he began to take in the fact that she plainly was something else.

:Obviously not, friend. To clarify things for you, I’m a professional soldier. A mercenary. Now do you want me to get you free, or not?: She couldn’t resist a little barb. :Those irons are going to be very hot in a moment.:

She waited for him to respond, and it didn’t take long. He named a figure. She blinked in surprise; it was more than she would have considered asking, and she would have expected to be bargained down. Either he’s more important than I thought, or he has an inflated opinion of his own worth. Either way, I’m holding him to it.

:Bond on it?: she asked.

He gave his bond, seeming a little miffed that she’d asked. :My Companion will help you on this, too,: he added.

Well, that only bore out everything Tarma had told her about the spirit-horses. :All right—: she said, and noted that he seemed a little surprised that she took that last so calmly. :Here’s what we’ll do....:

The Karsites had counted on the fact that they were in a blind canyon to protect them from attack on three of the four sides, and probably were assuming that since the canyon was thickly wooded, that would make fighting difficult for an opponent. But while the slope Kero was hidden on was indeed steep, it was not too steep for a Shin’a’in warsteed. And she had trained in the woods.

They charged “silently,” without a cry, Kero knowing that the Karsites would not recognize the crashing of her horse through the underbrush for an attack until it was too late. She had her bow out, and neither her aim nor her arrows had suffered from lack of practice. The enemy fighters silhouetted themselves most considerately against the fire; she picked off four of the Karsite guards, two of them with heart-shots and two through the throat, while still on the way in.

Already battle fever had her, and her world narrowed to target; response. There was no room for anything else.

Meanwhile, commotion at the mouth of the canyon signaled the Companion’s charge. Kero had felt a little guilty about putting the unarmed horse there, but the Companion was not going to be able to cut Eldan free, and she was.

Hellsbane skidded to a halt beside the kneeling Herald, and Kero swung her leg over the saddle-bow and vaulted off her back, letting off another arrow and getting a fifth score as she did so.

Weeks spent behind the Karsite lines had given her a rough command of their language; she heard the shouts, and realized that from the plurals being used that they had mistaken the gray warsteed for a white Companion, and herself for another Herald—it would have been funny, if she’d had any time to think about it.

She slashed at the Herald’s bonds, while the Companion charged down and trampled two more Karsites in his way, and Hellsbane reared on her haunches and bashed out the brains of a third. The ropes to his ankles and wrists were easy enough to handle, but just as she was getting ready to saw at the thongs binding Eldan’s arms to the log, two more of the Karsites rushed her. She tossed a knife at the Herald’s feet while parrying the first Karsite’s rather clumsy attack. He was easily dispatched, but his friend arrived, and another with him—

Hellsbane got there first, half-reared and got the first from behind, and the Companion fought his way to the Herald’s side. Now at least she didn’t need to worry about having to guard him while he cut himself free.

She thought she’d been hit a couple of times, but the wounds didn’t hurt. Since they weren’t slowing her down, she ignored them as usual. The horses were doing the job of four or five fighters, charging and trampling every sign of organization and scattering people before them like frightened quail—and Kero began to think this was going to work-Then she wheeled to face an opponent she sensed coming up behind her—

And her sword froze her in mid-slash. The new opponent was the warrior-priestess. A woman. And Need would not permit her to carry out her attack.

LetmegoyoustupidBITCHofahunkoftin! she screamed mentally at the blade, seeing her death in the smiling eyes of the priestess, in the cruel quirk of her lips, in the slow, preparatory swing of the priestess’ mace—Then a tree limb swung down out of the gathering darkness, and with a resounding crack, broke in half over the woman’s head.

The priestess dropped the mace, and fell to the ground like a stone.

Need let Kero go, muttering into the back of her mind in sleepy confusion, then subsiding into silence. “Thanks,” she told the Herald, with all the sincerity she could manage.

“Anytime,” he replied, grinning.

But there were still far too many Karsites in this camp, and the stunned disbelief that took them when their leader went down wasn’t going to last much longer.

Kero made a running jump for Hellsbane’s saddle, vaulting spraddle-legged over the mare’s rump and landing squarely in place. The Herald followed her example a half breath behind.

And she couldn’t help it—she indulged in a bloodcurdling Shin’a’in war-cry as they thundered out the canyon mouth, running over two more Karsites who weren’t quick enough to get out of the way.

Letem figure that out.

“Have we gone far enough, do you think?” she asked Eldan wearily, about a candlemark before dawn.

“I certainly hope so,” he replied, his voice as dull and lifeless as hers. “And I doubt very much they’re going to follow our trail. Where in Havens did you learn all that? That trail-muddling stuff, I mean,”

“It’s my job,” she reminded him, and looked up at the sky, critically. There were still stars in the west, but the east was noticeably lighter above the thick pines. It was time to find somewhere to hide for a while.

“We need a cave, or a ledge overhanging some bushes, or something,” she continued. “We’re going to need to hide for at least two days, maybe three, maybe more, so it’s going to have to stand up to some scrutiny. I want a cave, I really do.”

He looked bewildered, and not particularly happy. “Two days? Three? But—”

She cut him short. “I know what you’re thinking. Trust me on this one. I’m hurt, you’re hurt, and the Karsites are going to expect us to make straight for the Border. We need time to recover, and we need time for our trail to age. If we hole up back here, and stay here, we’ll get in behind them. They won’t look for us to come from that direction.”

Herald Eldan was hardly more than a dark shape against the lighter sky, and she realized that she really didn’t know what he looked like. He shook his head dubiously, then shrugged. “All right, you obviously know what you’re doing. You did get me out of there.” He gestured grandly. “Lead on, my lady.”

Ordinarily, that would have caused her to snap I’m nobody’s lady, much less yours, but something about Eldan—an unconscious graciousness, a feeling that he’d treat a scullery maid and a princess with the same courtesy, made her smile and take the lead, afoot, with Hellsbane trailing obediently behind like an enormous dog.

She knew what she was looking for, when she’d started searching here among the cliffs off the road, following the barest of game trails, and she had the feeling she’d find it in these uneven limestone slopes. A cave. Somewhere they could could hide and rest and not have to worry about searchers. Above all, though, their hiding place had to be big enough for the horses, too—maybe Eldan’s Companion could make himself into a drift of fog and escape notice, but Hellsbane was all too solid.

She tried several places that looked promising, but none of them were near big enough. She began watching the sky with one anxious eye; the rising sun had begun to dye the eastern horizon a delicate pink, and once the Karsites had completed their morning devotions, the hunt would be well and truly up. There was one advantage; a small one. Bats would be returning to their lairs for the day, and bats meant caves.

There was a ledge—and she thought she saw a dark form flit under it.

She fumbled her way up to it, tired limbs no longer responding, reactions gone all to hell. Predictably, she tripped, completely lost her balance and grabbed for a bush.

She missed it entirely. She fell down the slope with a strangled cry, rolling over and over, landing in a tangle of bushes—

And falling through the clutching, spiky branches, into blackness with a not-so-strangled shriek. She got a face full of gravel, and rolled farther, finally hitting her head, and seeing stars for a moment.

She lay on her back in the darkness, her ears ringing, wondering what she was doing there.

“Kerowyn?”

She blinked, trying to remember where she was, and who that voice could belong to.

“Kerowyn?” The voice certainly sounded familiar.

She sat up., and her head screamed a protest—but it all came back. Eldan, the rescue—Right.

“I’m in here!” she cried, hearing her voice echo back at her from deeper in the darkness with an elation not even her aching head could spoil.

“Are you all right?” She looked in the direction of the voice, and saw a lighter patch in the dark. That must be the entrance, screened off by bushes so thick she hadn’t even guessed it was there.

“Pretty much,” she replied, getting carefully to her feet, and sitting right back down again, prudently, when her head began to spin. “Can you bring the horses in here? Right now my knees are a little shaky.”

“I think so.” There were sounds of someone thrashing his way through bushes, leaving, then returning. “It looks big enough. Hang on, I’m going to make a light.” She winced at the sudden flare of light, and looked away, toward the rear of the cave. Interestingly, she couldn’t see an end to the darkness. When she looked back again, Eldan had a candle in one hand, and was leading Hellsbane in, the horse whickering her protest at being taken through scratchy bushes, but obeying him readily enough. Which was a miracle.

“She should be breaking your arm, you know,” she said conversationally, as Eldan coaxed the mare down the slippery gravel slope to the bottom of the cave. “She’s trained not to obey anyone but me, or someone I’ve designated that she’s worked with in my presence. She should be trying to kill you, or at least hurt you.”

“One of my Gifts is animal Mindspeech,” he said, just as casually. Then he dropped the reins, grinned at her thunderstruck expression, and scrambled back up the slope, leaving the candle stuck onto a rock.

“Oh,” she said weakly to the mare. “Animal Mindspeech. Of course. I should have known....”

“Doesn’t this hurt?” Eldan asked, peeling blood-soaked and dried cloth away from a slash on her leg. The wound wasn’t deep, but it was very messy; she was bleeding like the proverbial butchered pig.

And now that they were safe, it definitely did hurt. Quite a bit, as a matter of fact.

“Yes,” she replied, from behind gritted teeth. “It hurts.”

“Then why don’t you yell a little—it might do you some good.”

“It isn’t going to do any good to howl, much as I’d like to,” she pointed out. “And there might be someone out there to hear me.”

He sighed, and repeated what he’d just told her earlier. “One of my Gifts is animal Mindspeech, my lady. If there was anyone out there, the wild things would know it, and I’d know it. The only creatures that are going to hear you are some deer and a couple of squirrels.”

“Call it force of habit, then,” she replied, clenching her fists while he continued to clean the wound as he talked.

She’d already done the same service for him, finding mostly bruises, and a couple of nasty-looking cuts and burns where the priestess had tried a little preliminary “work” on him. He proved to be quite a handsome fellow; lean and muscular, a little taller than she was, with warm brown eyes and hair of sable-brown, but with two surprising white streaks in it, one at each temple. He had high cheekbones, a stubborn chin, and a generous mouth that looked as if he smiled a great deal.

“I don’t think this needs to be stitched,” he said, finally, “Just bandaged really well.”

“That’s a relief.” She allowed herself to smile. “Thanks for taking care of everything. I’m sorry I had to find this place with my head.”

Eldan had spent a couple of candlemarks pulling up armloads of grass and bringing it into the cave for the horses, then hunting up food for the humans. That was when he’d assured her that his Gift of understanding animal thoughts would keep him safe. Somehow she hadn’t been too surprised that he’d brought back roots, edible fungus, and fish. Obviously if there was going to be any red meat or fowl brought in, she would have to be the hunter. And that would have to wait until tomorrow, since she’d managed to give herself a concussion when she fell.

But the ceiling of the cave was high enough that a fire gave them no problems, and the hot fish, wrapped in a blanket of clay and stuffed with the mushrooms, together with the roots roasted in hot ashes, tasted like the finest feast she’d ever had.

“How in the Havens did you ever become a mercenary?” Eldan asked, wrapping a bandage around her leg, and securing it.

“Sort of fell into it, I suppose,” she replied. “I expect this is going to sound altogether horrible to you, but I happen to be good at fighting. And I didn’t want the kinds of things considered acceptable for young ladies.”

“Like husbands and children?” To her mild amazement, Eldan nodded. “My sister felt the same way. It’s just that I can’t imagine anyone with the Gift of Mindspeech being comfortable with killing people.”

“I don’t use it, much. The Gift, I mean. Wouldn’t miss it if it got taken from me.” She felt a little chill; Eldan was the only person besides Warrl to know about this so-called Gift, and the idea frightened her as nothing else in the past five years could. “Don’t—let anyone know, all right?”

“There’s no reason why I should,” he assured her, and somehow she believed him. “But I must admit, I don’t understand why you’d want to keep it secret if you don’t use it that much.”

“I live with mercenaries,” she pointed out to him. “People who value their privacy, and who generally have secrets.”

“Ah.” He nodded. “Where, among the Heralds, such Gifts are commonplace, and we understand that one doesn’t go rummaging about in someone else’s mind as if it were a kind of old-clothes bin. There’s a certain protocol we follow, and even the ordinary, unGifted people understand that in Valdemar.”

For a moment she tried to imagine a place where that would be true, a land where she wouldn’t be avoided for such an ability, or considered dangerous. She shook her head; places like that were only in tales.

“Well, we’re different,” he admitted. “Let me look at that slash along your ribs, hmm?”

She pulled off her tunic and pulled up her shirt without thinking twice about it; she’d have done the same with Tre or Gies, or Shallan. But when Eldan cleaned the long, shallow cut with his gentle hands, she found her cheeks warming, and she discovered to her chagrin that she found his touch very arousing.

That’s not surprising, she rationalized. We both came very close to death back there. The body does that, gets excited easily, after being in danger—I’ve seen Shallan vanish into the nearest bushes with Relli, both of them covered in gore. Coming close to death seems to make life that much more important. Hellfires, I’ve felt that way plenty of times, I just never did anything about it because there wasn’t anyone around that I wanted to wake up with.

He’s somebody I wouldn’t mind waking up with.

She caught the way her thoughts were tending, and sternly reprimanded herself. But that’s no reason to start with him.

:You know, my lady,: whispered a little caress of a thought across the surface of her mind, :just because you’ve always been afraid of something, that’s no reason to continue to fear it.:

For a moment she was confused, then angry with him for eavesdropping on her thoughts, until she realized he was talking about Mindspeech, not sex. But the touch of his mind on hers was as sensuous as the touch of his hands just under her breasts; the only other Mindspeaker she’d ever shared thoughts with was Warrl, and he was not only unhuman, “he” was a neuter. She had never felt anything quite so intimate as Eldan’s thought mingling with hers ... there were overtones that speech alone couldn’t convey. A sense that he found her as attractive as she found him; an intimation that his body was reacting to the near-brush with death in the same way....

We’re going to have to stay in here until the hunt dies down, she thought absently, more than half her attention being taken up with the feel of his warm hands soothing her aching ribs, and the silken touch of his thoughts against her mind. It’s going to happen sooner or later—we’re both young, and we’re both interested. There’s no earthly reason why we shouldn’t. If we don’t, things are only going to get very strained in here.

She caught his hands just as he finished bandaging her ribs, and slowly, and quite deliberately, drew him toward her.

He was surprised—oh, not entirely, just surprised that she was so forward, she suspected. There was just a sudden flash of something like shock, and only for a moment. She deliberately kept her mind open to his touch, and after a brief hesitation, his thoughts joined hers as their lips met, and he joined her on her bedroll.

She prepared to kiss him, parting her lips, only to find he’d done the same. She chuckled a little at his evident enthusiasm; he slid his hands under her shirt, over the breasts he had been trying very hard not to touch a moment before. She undid the fastenings of his breeches and helped him to get rid of them, while he rid her of shirt and underdrawers.

Tired and battered as they were, they moved slowly with each other, taking their cues from the things picked out of each other’s minds. Making love mind-to-mind like this was the most incredibly intimate and sensuous experience Kero had ever experienced; and it was evident that Eldan was no stranger to it. In fact, given the evidence of her senses, she’d have to account him as very experienced in a number of areas, with a formidable level of expertise.

Quite a difference from Daren.

At some point, the candle burned out, leaving only the fire for illumination; she hardly noticed. She saw him just as clearly with hands and mind as she did with her eyes.

One more thing that was different from Daren: incredible patience. It had been a very long time since her last lover; Eldan was understanding, and gentle—and made certain she was fully satisfied, sated, in fact, before taking his own pleasure, pleasure in which she joined, thrilled by the overwhelming urgency she felt rushing into her from his mind. He arched his back and cried out, then slowed, breathing ragged and spent, and came to rest atop her. They lay together entwined, and gradually Kero realized he was falling asleep and fighting it. She soothed the back of his neck with a delicate brush of fingertips, and he sighed at the wordless exchange and gave up the fight. He withdrew from her, gently and slowly, still aware of all the sensations of each others’ bodies. When she was certain he wasn’t going to wake, she carefully disengaged herself, found another dry piece of wood, and threw it on the fire, giving her a little more light to see by. She reached out and caught a corner of his bedroll, shook it out, and draped the blankets over both of them.

As she settled in beside him, she noticed the Companion stare at him and sigh, before turning toward the entrance of the cave in a “guard” stance. That was the last thing she saw as she fell asleep.

When she woke, Eldan was already awake and about; in fact, that was what had awakened her. Wisely, he did not attempt to move quietly—anything that sounded like “stealth” would have sent her lunging to her feet with a weapon in hand. She woke just enough to identify where she was, and who was with her—then enjoyed the unwonted luxury of taking her time about coming to full consciousness. There was no hurry; she certainly wasn’t going anywhere....

Especially not today. Today she was one long ache, from the soles of her feet to the top of her head. Just bruises and muscle aches, of course; the cuts would be half-healed scars by now. Or, more accurately, half-Healed scars. She suspected that the wounds she had taken had been a great deal worse when she’d gotten them—but one of Need’s attributes was that she Healed the bearer of just about anything short of a death-wound. She’d surreptitiously made certain that the sword was under her bedroll, well padded to avoid making a lump, before she’d undressed to have Eldan tend to her injuries. She didn’t have to be in physical contact with it for it to Heal her; it just had to be nearby, but under her bedroll was where she liked to put it when she had hurts that needed to be dealt with. She certainly would never have slept with a concussion without Need’s Healing.

She wondered what Eldan would make of her rapid recovery.

I hope he’ll just think a little self-Healing is one of my abilities. I’d rather not have him asking too many questions about Need. Grandmother said there was something odd about Heralds and magic, and I’d rather not find out what it is.

Eldan had set about organizing the cave into a place where they could stay comfortably for several days. Just now he was heaping bracken into a depression and covering it with a layer of grass, and after a moment, she figured out why. It was to be a bed, of course; much more comfortable than a couple of bedrolls on the cold stone floor. She watched him, blinking sleepily, as he laid her saddle and his own upside down to dry, and spread both horse blankets out to air.

“A nest, little hawk? You’re far more ambitious than I am,” she said with a yawn.

He looked up, and grinned. “Here,” he said, tossing her clothing. “It’s clean. I washed it all while you were asleep.”

She shrugged off the covers and ran a hand through her hair, grimacing at the feel of it. “I almost hate to get into clean clothing when I’m as dirty as I am.”

“That’s easily remedied, too,” he told her. “This is a limestone cave, and that means water. There’s a tiny trickle at the back of the cave. Enough to keep all of us supplied, and clean up a little, too.”

One of the things she’d stolen on her forays after food had been a bar of rough brown soap; harsh with lye, but it would get her clean. It had been in her packs; Eldan had evidently found it when he’d rummaged around looking for the medical supplies (such as they were). He handed the soap to her, with a scrap of cloth that had once been part of her shirt. He didn’t have much, besides his bedroll and some clothing.

“Come keep me company,” she said, heading to the back of the cave and the promised water. Sure enough, there was a little stream running across the back of it, in one side and out the other, with a rounded pool worn by its motion. Cold, too. She winced as she stuck her hand in it, but cold was better at this point than dirty.

“So how did you manage to find such attractive company?” she asked, as she scrubbed ruthlessly at dirt that seemed part of her, harsh soap, cold water, and all.

“Well, I was all tied up at the time—”

“I meant the Karsites, loon,” she said, splashing water at him. He ducked, and grinned.

“Be careful, or you’ll put out the candle,” he warned. “And I don’t have many. We really ought to make do with firelight. So, you want to know how I happened to be keeping company with Karsites? I’ll tell you what, you answer a question, and I’ll answer one. Fair enough?”

“Well—” she said cautiously.

“I’d like to know where you got such good training in your Gift if you never told anyone about it,” he interrupted eagerly. “Your control is absolutely amazing!”

“I told one other—person,” she admitted, reluctantly, “Actually, he came to me, because I was—uh—making it hard for him to sleep at night.” She ducked her head in the cold water, more than the chill of her bath making her shiver. Years of concealing her abilities had made a habit of secrecy that was just too much a part of her to break with any comfort. The silence between them lengthened. “Look,” she said, awkwardly, her hair full of soap. “I’d rather not talk about it. It—it just doesn’t seem right. I really don’t use it that much, and I’d rather forget I had it.”

He sighed, but didn’t insist. “I guess it’s my turn, hmm? Well, it’s stupid enough. Or rather, I was stupid enough. I was just across the Border, in a little village. Not spying, precisely, just picking up commonplace information, gossip, news, that kind of thing.”

She turned to stare at him. “Wearing that? Blessed Agnira, what kind of an idiot are you?”

“Not that much of an idiot!” he snapped, then said, “Sorry. I wasn’t that stupid, no, I was wearing ordinary enough clothing, and I’d walked in; I’d left Ratha out in the woods, outside the village walls. I thought my disguise was perfect, and I thought my contacts were trustworthy, but obviously, something went wrong. I think someone betrayed me, but I’ll probably never know for sure. Anyway, when they first hauled me outside the walls, there were only a couple of the guards and no priestess; Ratha tried to get me loose, and they got one of my saddlebags even though they couldn’t catch him.”

“And when they found the uniform, they couldn’t resist dressing you in it.” She rinsed out her hair, and dried herself with the rag he handed her. With a smile of amusement, she recognized the rest of her ruined shirt. “I can see their reasoning. Makes it all the more evident to the priestess that they really had caught a Herald.”

He nodded, and she pulled the clean clothing on, dripping hair and all. “So, that’s it. Short and unadorned.”

Except for the reason you were over here. Just gathering “information,” hmm? With the ability to read thoughts? Not bloody likely. You were posted to that village to eavesdrop on everything you could, and you’re more of a fool than I think you are if you haven’t realized I’d figure that out. So you Heralds aren’t quite as noble—or as stupid—as you claim. There’s such a thing as morality, but there’s such a thing as expediency, too. I just hope you save your expediency for your enemies.

But she didn’t say anything, just strolled over the uneven surface of the cave floor to their fire.

“So how did you end up here?” he asked, handing her a roasted tuber and her water skin. “The closest fighting I know of is on the Menmellith border, and you’re leagues away from there.”

“Sheer bad luck,” she told him. “The worst run of luck I could have had except for one thing—nobody’s managed to kill me yet, that I know of.”

He smiled at that, and she described the rout, the flight, the dive into the river, and her continued flight deeper and deeper into enemy lands.

“—so I ended up here,” she finished. “Like I said, sheer bad luck.”

“Not for me,” he pointed out.

She snorted. “Well, if your chosen deity brought me all this way to save your hide, it’s going to cost you double. I may not be able to collect from a god, but I can certainly collect from you!”

He laughed. “If any outside forces had any part in bringing you up here, it wasn’t at my request,” he protested. “I mean, not that I wasn’t praying for rescue, but they caught me only yesterday, and you’ve been on the run for—what? Weeks?”

“At least,” she said glumly. “Seems like months. Sometimes I think I’m never going to make it back home alive.”

“You will,” he replied, softly.

She just shrugged. “So, are you going to introduce me to your friend? It hardly seems polite to keep acting like he’s no brighter than Hellsbane.”

Eldan brightened. “You mean, you—”

“My weaponsmaster told me about Companions,” she said, cutting him off. “They’re—s—s—”

And suddenly, she was tongue-tied. She literally could not say the word, “spirit.”

“Special,” she got out, sweating with the effort. “Absolutely the intellectual equals of you and me. Right?”

“Exactly.” He beamed. “Ratha, this is Kerowyn. Kerowyn, Companion Ratha.”

“Zha’hai’allav’a, Ratha,” she said politely, as the Companion left his self-appointed watch post at the entrance and paced gracefully toward her. “That’s Shin’a’in, the greeting of my adopted Clan,” she told both Ratha and his Herald. “It means, ‘wind beneath your wings.’ My Clan’s the Tale’sedrin, the Children of the Hawk.”

She didn’t know why the Shin’a’in greeting seemed appropriate; it just fit. Ratha nodded to her with grave courtesy; Eldan’s eyes widened.

“Shin’a’in?” he exclaimed, and turned to look at Hellsbane, dozing over her heap of fresh-pulled grass. “Then—surely that’s not—”

“She’s a warsteed, all right,” Kero said with pride. “And probably the only one you’ll ever see off the Plains. Her name’s Hellsbane. Smart as a cat, obedient as a dog, and death on four hooves if I ask it of her.”

“That much I saw.” He got up and walked over to the mare, who woke when he moved, and watched him cautiously.

“Hellsbane,” Kero called, catching the mare’s attention. “Kathal, dester’edre.

Hellsbane relaxed, and permitted herself to be examined minutely. Eldan looked her over with all the care of a born horseman. Finally he left her to return to her doze and seated himself back by the fire. “Amazing,” he said in wonder. “Ugliest horse I’ve ever seen, but under that hide—if I were going to build a riding beast for warfare, starting from the bone out, that’s exactly what I’d build.”

“My weaponsmaster claims that’s what the Clans did do,” Kero said. “The gods alone know how they did it, or even if they did it, but that’s what she claims.”

“Amazing,” he repeated, shaking his head. Then he raised it. “So, tell me about this weaponsmaster of yours. And how in the Havens did you manage to get adopted into a Clan?”

She smiled. “It’s a long story. Are you comfortable?”

They were both a lot wearier than either of them thought. He told her to start at the beginning and she took him at his word. She told him about the “ride”—and to her embarrassment, discovered that the song had made it as far as Valdemar. Once past the decision to leave home and beg some kind of instructions from her grandmother, she caught him yawning.

“I’m not—oh—that boring, am I?” she asked, finding the yawns contagious.

“No,” he said, “It’s just that I can’t keep my eyes open.”

“Well, I don’t think any Karsites are going to creep up on us in the dark,” she admitted, “And it’s well after sundown. I never once noticed anyone moving around after dark except army patrols. And even they wouldn’t go off the roads.” She did not mention the strange and frightening instances when she’d felt as if she was being hunted; she had no proof, and anyway, nothing had ever come of it.

She got up and went to the tangled heap of blankets, intending to throw them over that invitingly thick bed of bracken he’d made. Eldan joined her in the task, still yawning.

“They seem to think that demons travel by night,” he said, shaking out his blanket. “It seems that people vanish out of their houses by night—whole families, sometimes—and are never seen again. And not surprisingly, the ones that vanish are the ones that are the least devout, or have asked uncomfortable questions, or have shown some other signs of rebellion.”

She thought about the army patrols she’d seen moving about at night, and was perfectly capable of putting the two together. “Hmm. Demons on horseback, do you suppose? In uniform, perhaps?”

“A good guess,” he acknowledged.

“Makes me very grateful I wasn’t born in Karse.”

Eldan spread the last of the blankets over the improvised bed, and tilted his head to one side. “Not all the ‘vanished’ end up dead, my lady,” he said. “Some of them end up in the priesthood.”

“Not a chance!” she exclaimed.

“I hadn’t finished. They retain their skills—but they’ve forgotten everything about their old life. Everything; it happened to someone I was watching as a possible contact. She had a Gift of Mindspeech, one that was just developing. When I next saw her, she didn’t recognize anyone she had known before. Her mind was a complete blank—and her devotion to the Sunlord was total.” He nodded as she felt the blood drain from her face.

“You mean—everybody with these ‘Gifts’ winds up in the priesthood—and someone in the priesthood strips their minds?” The idea was horrible, more horrifying than rape and torture, somehow. Rape and torture still left you with your own mind, your own thoughts.

“Someone in the priesthood wipes their minds clean. Everything that made them what they are is gone. I’ve been able to trigger old memories in someone suffering from forgetfulness after a head injury—” (She filed that away for future reference.) “—but I have never been able to do so in one of the priestesses.” He sighed. “Some would say that they are still better off that way than dead, but I don’t know.”

She shivered uncontrollably. “I’d rather be dead.”

He put his arms around her to still the shudders. “Now I’ve told you something that’s sure to make you have nightmares,” he said apologetically. “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

She snuggled closer in a lightning change of mood, heat in her groin kindled by the warmth of his arms around her, and the feel of his strong body against hers. “You can do something to make me forget,” she pointed out, and nibbled delicately on his earlobe.

“So I can,” he laughed.

And proceeded to do just that.

* * *

Today there were hunters out there, though none were near the cave, and neither of them wanted to risk going out. Quite a few hunters were prowling the hills, in fact—and at least a half-dozen priests. The escaped Herald and his rescuer, it seemed, were very much sought after.

Ratha was the one who warned Eldan about the priests, fortunately before the Herald tried any Thoughtsensing. With that in mind, he pinpointed the enemy and identified the priests through the eyes of the animals about them. He would have liked very much to touch the minds of their horses, so that he could overhear what they were saying to each other, but both of them felt that particular idea was far too risky.

“Maybe if you’re ever in a trap you can’t break out of,” she said. “In fact, I’ll tell you what I’d have done if I’d been in your shoes with your Gift back when they had you. I’d have waited until they were sure I was helpless, and then I’d have spooked their horses. Run a couple of them through the fire to scatter it, and they wouldn’t have been able to see you getting away. Then I would have hidden real close to the camp until I saw a good chance to get the hell out of there. Like I told you, they don’t expect a prisoner to stick around.”

Eldan looked at her with considerable respect. “There are times I wish I could convince you to come back with me, and this is one of them. I’d love to put you in charge of a class at the Collegium.”

She shuddered. “Thank you, no. I’d rather face a siege.”

There were other, more disturbing, searchers. Twice, Kero “felt” those searching “eyes” she’d sensed before—this time they were angry, and she could feel the heat of their rage preceding and following them. The first time, she was watching at the entrance to the cave and didn’t get a chance to see if Eldan felt them, too. But the second time was just after dark, when they were both lounging beside the barest coal of a fire, not wanting to risk a light being seen, and she instinctively flattened herself against the stone floor of the cave, blood turning to ice-water in her veins.

She looked over at a whisper of sound, and saw that Eldan had done the same thing.

“What is that?” she hissed, as if speaking aloud would bring the thing back.

“You felt it, too?” He also seemed impelled to whisper his words. “I don’t know what it is. It isn’t any kind of Thoughtsensing I’ve ever run up against before. It doesn’t seem exactly like Thoughtsensing. It’s like—” he groped for a description “—like there’s actually some thing moving half in our world, and half in another, and the reason we can feel it is because it happens to be leaking its thoughts. Like it isn’t shielded.”

She considered that for a moment. “And demons walk at night,” she said.

He stared at her. “Demons are only in stories!” he exclaimed indignantly, as if he thought she was trying to make a fool out of him. Then he faltered, as she continued to watch him soberly. “Aren’t they?”

“Not in my grandmother’s experience,” she said, sitting up slowly, “Though I can’t vouch for having seen one myself. But consider how some of the people who vanish at night do so out of their own houses, with no one else in the family aware that they’re gone until the next day.”

He contemplated that for a moment, as he pushed himself off the floor, and she watched his face harden. “If that’s got even the barest possibility of being true, then it’s all the more important that I get back to report.” He did not, at that moment, look like a man she wanted to cross.

“I’m doing the best that I can,” she pointed out without losing her temper. “After all, I have quite a bit riding on getting you back, myself!”

He stared at her for a moment, as if he wasn’t certain just what she was. She watched curiosity slowly replacing anger in his expression. Finally he asked, “If I hadn’t agreed to your price back there, would you have left me in their hands?”

It would serve you right if I said “yes, she thought, but honesty compelled her to answer otherwise. “If I could have gotten you loose, without getting myself killed, I would have,” she said. “But instead of taking you to Valdemar, I’d have convinced you it was safer to go through Menmellith. And once across the border and with my Company, I’d have turned you over to the Mercenary Guild as a war prize. They would have ransomed you back to Valdemar. I’d have lost ten percent on the deal, but I still would have gotten paid.”

He stared at her, shocked and offended. “I don’t believe you!” he spluttered. “I can’t believe anyone could be so—so—”

“Mercenary?” she suggested mildly.

That shut him up, And after a few moments, his anger died, and was replaced by a sense of the humor of the situation. “All right, I was out of line. You have a right to make a living—”

“Thanks for your permission,” she replied sarcastically. I’m really getting just a little tired of his attitude....

He threw up his hands. “I give up! I can’t say anything right, can I? I’m sorry, I don’t understand you, and I don’t think I ever will. I fight for a cause and a country—”

“And I fight for a living.” She shrugged. “I’m just as much a whore as any other men or women that make a living with their bodies, and I don’t pretend I’m not.”

And maybe that’s the real difference between us. Mercs are the same as whores, people who devote themselves to causes are like one half of a lifebonded couple. We do exactly the same things, just I do it for money, and you do it for love. Which may be another form of payment, so—maybe he still should do something about that attitude. She shrugged, feeling somehow just a little hurt and oddly lonely. It appeared that being able to read people’s minds didn’t necessarily make for less misunderstandings.

Which is as good a reason as any to keep from using it so much I come to depend on it, she decided. If it can’t keep two people who like each other from making mistakes about each other, it isn’t going to keep me from making mistakes about other things.

“So,” she said, when they knew there probably weren’t going to be any repetitions of their visitation, and both of them had gotten a chance to cool down a little, “I don’t know about you, but I am not going to be able to get to sleep for a while. Not after having that cruise by overhead.”

Eldan sighed, and looked up from the repairs he was trying to make to his clothing, using a thorn for a needle and raveled threads from a seam. “I’m glad I’m not the only one feeling that way. I was afraid you might think I was being awfully cowardly, like a youngling afraid of the dark.”

“If stuff like that is out in the dark, I’d be afraid of it too!” She relaxed a little. He isn’t going to be difficult. Thank the gods. “I don’t know if being awake is going to make any difference to that, but I’d rather meet it awake than asleep. So let’s talk. You know everything that’s important about me—”

He started to protest, then saw the little grin on her face, grinned back and shrugged.

“All I know about you is that at some point in your life you decided to make a big fat target out of yourself.” She fixed him with a mock-stern glare. “So talk.”

Eldan put down his sewing, and moved over to her side of the fire, stretching himself out on their combined bedroll.

Also a good sign.

“To start with, I didn’t ‘decide’ to become a Herald; no one does. I was Chosen.”

The way he said the word made it pretty clear that he was talking about something other than having some senior Herald come up and pick him out as an apprentice. To Kero it had the sound of a priestly Vocation.

“Before that, I was just an ordinary enough youngling, one of the middle lot of about a dozen children. We had a holding, big enough that my father could call himself ‘lord,’ if he chose, but he made all of us learn what hard work was like. When we were under twelve, we all had chores, and over twelve we all took our turn in the fields with our tenants. One day I was out weeding the white-root patch, when I heard an animal behind me. I figured one of our colts or calves had gotten out—again—and I turned around to shoo him back to the pasture. Only it wasn’t a calf, it was Ratha.” Eldan sighed, and closed his eyes. As the firelight flickered over his peaceful expression, Kero guessed that memory must be one of the best of his life.

Silence for a moment. “So what’s Ratha got to do with it?” she asked, when he didn’t say anything more.

“What’s—oh. Sorry. The Companions Choose us. You can’t just march up to Haven and announce you want to be a Herald, and your father can’t buy you an apprenticeship. Only the Companions make the decision on who will or will not be a Herald.” Ratha whickered agreement, and Kero glanced over to see him nodding his head.

Well, if they’re like the leshya’e Kal’enedral, that makes sense. A spirit would be able to see into someone’s heart, to know if he’s the kind of person likely to forget how to balance morality and expediency. Ratha looked straight at her for a moment, and his blue eyes picked up the firelight in a most uncanny manner. And he nodded again. She blinked, more than a little taken aback.

“When they’re ready to go out after their Chosen, Companions will show up at the stable and basically demand to be saddled up. It’s kind of funny, especially to see the reaction of new stablehands.” He chuckled. “I was there one day when six of them descended on the stable, each one making it very clear he wanted to be taken care of right now, thank you. I had someone call in some of the trainees before the poor stableboy lost his mind. Anyway, I knew what Ratha’s standing in the middle of the vegetable patch meant, though to tell you the truth, I’d always fancied myself in a Guard uniform, not Herald’s Whites. I think my parents were rather relieved, all things considered; one less youngling to have to provide for. And we weren’t that far from Haven, they knew I’d be back for visits, probably even several times a week. Mama made a fuss about ‘her baby’ growing up, of course, but it’s always seemed to be more as if she did it because she thought she should.”

Both of them grinned at that. “Couple of my mates have had send-offs like that,” Kero offered. “And no doubt in anybody’s mind that they weren’t just as cared-for as anyone else in the family, just when the tribe’s that big, somebody has to go eventually.”

“And it’s a relief when it’s on their own. Aye.” Eldan nodded vigorously. “Other than that, things were no different for me than for any other youngling at Collegium. Average in my classes, only thing out of the ordinary was the animal Mindspeech. Had a turn for disguise. Got to know this little bit named Selenay pretty well, gave me a bit of a shock when I found out she was the Heir, though!”

Knows the Queen by given name, hmm? The thought was a little chilling; it pointed up the differences between them. To cover it, she teased, “If I’d known that, your price would have been higher.”

He opened his eyes to see if she was joking, and smiled when he saw that she was. “That’s it,” he concluded. “That’s all there is to know about me. No famous Rides, no bad scrapes until this one. Nothing out of the ordinary. “

Kero snorted. “As if Heralds could ever be ordinary. Right. Tell me another one.”

“I collect rocks,” he offered.

“Great pastime for someone who spends his life on horseback.”

“I didn’t say it was easy, he protested, laughingly.

Kero laughed with him. “I should confess, then. I make jewelry. Actually, I carve gemstones. Now that is a portable hobby.”

“I used to write bad poetry.”

She glared at him.

“I stopped.”

She made a great show of cleaning her knife and examining the blade. “Wise man. If you’d told me you still did, I’d have been forced to kill and eat you. And the world would have been safer. There’s nothing more dangerous than a bad poet, unless it’s a bad minstrel.”

She said that with such a solemn face that he began laughing. “I think I can see your point,” he chortled, “I think in your position I’d start using my extra pay to put bounties on Bards!”

“I’ve thought about it,” she said wryly. “And not entirely in jest. Traditional Bardic immunity can lead to some misusing their power, and Bards have no one making sure they behave themselves the way the Healers and you Heralds do.”

“Only the Guild,” he acknowledged, soberly. “They’re pretty careful in Valdemar, but outside? I don’t know. I’ll bet Karse is using theirs.”

“They’re using their Healers,” Kero pointed out. “No Healing done outside a temple of the Sunlord. When they’re in the mood, they even go hunt down their poor little herbmen and wisewomen. The only reason they don’t go after midwives is because the priests can’t be bothered with something that is only important to females.”

Eldan’s expression sobered considerably. “I didn’t know that. There wasn’t anyone like that in the villages I’d been watching. Makes you wonder. About what else they’re using, I mean.”

“That it does,” said Kero, who had a shrewd notion of what they were using. Dark magics? It was likely. And no one to stop them. You might as easily stand in the path of a whirlwind.

And all that was pitted against the two of them.

The night seemed darker, outside their cave, after that, and when they made love, it was as much to cling to each other for comfort as anything else.

The hunt stayed in their area for longer than Kero had expected, which led her to believe that the priestesses were getting some kind of indication of where they were. During that time, she got to know Eldan very well; possibly better than he knew. A mercenary learns quickly how to analyze those he will be fighting against or beside—and everything Kero learned led her to trust Eldan more.

Despite having used his powers to spy on the Karsites, he was truly sincere in his refusal to abuse them. He hadn’t been so much prying into peoples’ minds as simply catching stray thoughts, usually when people were speaking among themselves. As Kero had herself learned, there was a “pre-echo” of what they were about to say, a moment before the words emerged, and to someone with her Gift, those thoughts could be as loud as a shout.

To Kero’s mind, that was no more immoral than setting spies in taverns, and establishing listening holes wherever possible.

As her concussion healed, they split the chores between them—the only exceptions being hunting. Eldan would happily eat what she killed, but he couldn’t bear to kill it himself. That was fine with Kero; he knew what plants and other growing things were edible, and she didn’t. So she hunted and he gathered, in the intervals between Karsite patrols, a situation she found rather amusing.

Two days after the hunt moved on, they left their hiding place. The hunters had made no effort at concealing their tracks, which pleased Kero no end. That meant that the Karsites were convinced their quarry was somewhere ahead of them, and they wouldn’t be looking for them in the rear.

They traveled by night, despite the demons, or whatever they were. Kero had the feeling that Need was both attracting the things and hiding herself and the Herald from them. Kero did her best to recall every little tidbit she’d ever read or heard about such things.

Some information didn’t seem to apply, like Tarma’s story about Thalkarsh. Whatever was being used to find them didn’t seem terribly bright, which argued for it being something less than a true demon.

Maybe a magical construct, but more likely an Abyssal Plane Elemental. Just about any Master-level mage could command one of those, and they weren’t too bright. They were attracted by places where the magical energy in something or someone made a disturbance in the normal flows of such energy—but once they were in the area, they would not be able to find the source of the disturbance if it was strong enough to hide itself well. Just as it was easy to see a particularly tall tree from a distance, but next to impossible to find it once you were in the forest.

That was how she explained it to Eldan, anyway, but something forced her to couch it in vague terms that could apply to the mental Gifts as well as the magical. Although she couldn’t explain away the part about it being magic-made itself, she found herself telling him glibly that the thing might be a creature out of the Pelagirs, invisible and intangible, but nevertheless there. Where that explanation came from, she had no idea, but she sensed that he accepted it a little better than he would have taken anything that smacked of “true” magic.

They found a hiding place by the light of dawn—an overgrown hollow, covered completely with leafy vines so that she wouldn’t have guessed it was there if she hadn’t been paying close attention to the topography of the land. The vines themselves were supported by bushes on either side of the hollow, but nothing actually grew down in the hollow itself. It wasn’t as secure as a cave, and it certainly wouldn’t form much of a shelter if it rained, but it was big enough for all four of them, and offered excellent concealment.

It was then, as they made love in sun-dappled shade, that Kero realized there was something out of the ordinary in her relationship with this man. She felt much closer to him than she had ever felt to anyone, except perhaps Tarma and Warrl, and found herself thinking in terms of things he might want as much as things she wanted.

It was such a different feeling that finally she was forced to admit she was falling in love with the man. Not just lust (though there was certainly enough of that in the relationship), but love.

Shallan would have laughed her head off. She always claimed that one day the “Ice Maiden” would thaw—and when she fell, she’d go hard.

Looks like she was right, Kero thought with a feeling very like pain, curling up against his back, with her head cradled just behind the nape of his neck and one hand resting on his hip. Damn her eyes, anyway. I wonder how much money she had riding on it?

It certainly hadn’t been hard to fall for him. He was kind, personable, clean, very easy on the eyes; a “gentleman” in every sense of the word. He treated her like a competent human being, neither deferring to her in a way that made it seem as if he was patronizing her, nor foiling to say something when he disagreed with her. He did not treat her like a freak for being a fighting woman the way most civilians did.

In fact, he treated her like one of the Skybolts would have, if she’d taken one as a lover. He treated her like a partner, an equal. In all things.

She moved a little bit closer; it was cold down in the hollow, but she wanted spiritual comfort as well as physical. Right now she was feeling very lost....

He knows my best-kept secret. He’s shared his thoughts with me.

Was that enough to make up for the differences between them?

Was anything?

* * *

Eldan crouched in the shelter of the branches of a tree beside Kerowyn, and fretted. I have to get back. Selenay needs to know all this, and she needed to know it a month ago. Every moment wasted here could cost us.

But the Karsite patrols on the road below didn’t seem in any mood to indulge his needs. Even though the sun was setting, painting the western sky in pink and gold, the riders on the blue-shadowed road running between the hills below them showed no signs of heading back to their barracks. Kerowyn glanced over at him, and her lips thinned a little.

“You’re not making them get out of the way any faster by fuming,” she whispered. “And you’re tying your stomach up in knots. Relax. They’ll leave when they leave.”

She just doesn’t understand, he thought, unhappily, as the riders disappeared around a bend, heading north. How am I ever going to get it through to her? She doesn’t care when she gets home—hellfires, she hasn’t even got a home

“Look, I need to get back to the ’Bolts just as badly as you need to get home,” she continued, interrupting his train of thought. “We could still try cutting back toward Menmellith—”

If we go to Menmellith, it’ll take three times as long to get back. Dammit, why can’t she understand? He knew if he said anything, he’d sound angry, so he just shook his head vehemently, and tried to put on at least the outward appearance of calm. She looked away, her expression brooding, the last rays of the sun streaking through the boughs of the tree, and striping her hair with gold. He wondered what she was thinking.

She wants to avoid Valdemar. I want to bring her into Valdemar with me. If she can just see what it’s like, she’ll understand, I know she will.

Somewhere north above the road, Ratha was scouting, uncannily invisible among the trees. He settled his mind, closed his eyes, and reached out for the dear, familiar presence.

:Hola, hayburner!:

:Yes, oh, hairless ape?: Ratha had seen an animal trainer with an ape at one of the fairs, and the beast had sported a pair of twin streaks in its hair that were nearly identical to Eldan’s. The Companion hadn’t let him forget it since.

:Never let up, do you?:

:I’m trying to lighten your mood, Chosen,: the Companion replied. :You are going to fret yourself right off that branch if you don’t calm yourself.:

:Is that second patrol showing any sign of moving?: he asked anxiously, ignoring the advice.

He felt Ratha sigh. :Relax, will you? They’ve settled in, but they haven’t set up a permanent camp. I think they plan on moving before nightfall. In any case we can get by them above the road; I found a goat track.:

Eldan stifled a groan. The last time Ratha had found an alternative route, they’d been all night covering a scant league of ground. :How—ah—“challenging” a goat track?:

There was a hint of amusement in Ratha’s mind-voice. :Challenging enough. It’ll be good for you.:

Eldan Sent an image of his still-livid bruises. :That’s what you said about the last one you found.:

:I have four legs instead of two, no hands, and I weigh a great deal more than you do. If I can make it over, you can.: Ratha sounded a little condescending, and more than a little impatient. :All the fuming in the world isn’t going to get us to Valdemar any faster. We’ll get there when we get there.:

:You sound like Kero,: Eldan replied, opening his eyes a little and taking a sidelong glance at the mercenary. She had been watching him, and he saw her swallow and look away. She knew he was Mindspeaking Ratha, and as always, it bothered her. I wish she’d get over that, too.

:She’s had many lessons in patience. You could profit by her example.: Ratha hesitated for a moment, and Eldan had the feeling the Companion would have said more, but was uncertain if he should.

On the road below them, the Karsites finally reappeared, going back the way they had come. That just left the patrol Ratha was watching. As the last of the sun dropped below the horizon, the wind picked up, and gusted a chill down Eldan’s neck. He felt a little more of a chill at Ratha’s next words.

:You are very—fond of this woman,: Ratha said, finally.

:I think I’m in love with her,: Eldan told his Companion, cautiously, relieved to have it out in the open between them at last, but not certain he liked the phrasing or the tone of Ratha’s statement.

:I—think you are, too,: Ratha replied, obviously troubled. :I am glad for you, and yet I wish you were not.:

Eldan had never hidden anything from his Companion, and he didn’t intend to start now. :Why?: he asked, bluntly, determined not to let things rest with that :What’s wrong with her? I know you like her.:

:The patrol is moving off now,: Ratha replied brightly.

:Thank you. And you’re changing the subject.: Eldan wasn’t about to let Ratha get off that easily. :I won’t be able to move out of this tree for at least half a candlemark. I’m not going anywhere. Just what, exactly, is wrong with Kero?:

Ratha sounded reluctant to answer. :She doesn’t understand you—us. She can’t understand how we can be loyal to people we’ve never seen, be willing to stand between them and harm, and for no gain. She does not understand loyalty to a cause. And yet—:

:What, yet?:

:There is something about her that is very noble. She abides by her own code. And she has been very good for you. You are more—alive, since being with her.:

:I feel more alive.: Eldan pondered Ratha’s statements; caught Kero watching him with an odd little smile on her face, and felt his heart clench. This strange, frighteningly competent woman was not like anyone else he’d ever encountered. She was—like a perfect Masterwork sword; she could have given any of the famous beauties at Court tough competition, with her long, blonde hair, her finely chiseled features, her pale aquamarine eyes—

Competition? No. She’d never take second place to anyone. She’s not only beautiful, she’s polished. There’s nothing about her that hasn’t been honed and perfected until it’s the best it can be. Beside her, any other woman looks like a pretty doll; no fire, no spirit. Except maybe the Heralds—but

His relationships with other Heralds had never gone beyond friendship and a little intimate company. And he almost always had to initiate the latter.

Kero initiated lovemaking as often as he did; pouncing on him, giving him soft little love-bites and growling like a large playful cat—languidly rubbing his shoulders or scratching his back, then turning the exercise into more intimate caresses. He shivered a little, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. She was a truly remarkable, exciting, bedmate—

But she was more than that. She treated him outside of bed like an absolutely equal partner, taking on her share of the chores without a quibble, substituting things he couldn’t do—like hunting—without an argument.

And she had entered his thoughts the way no one else, man or woman, ever had. He wanted to show her his home, to see her excitement, her reactions. He wanted to share everything with her.

He wanted, most of all, to make her understand. Because he wanted to hear her say she was willing to be his partner from now on.... :I want to get her into Valdemar. I know once I get her there, she’ll understand, she’ll see what it’s like for us, and she’ll understand everything.:

:If she ever could, she—: The Companion cut the thought off, and Eldan wondered what it was he almost said.

:She what?:

:It doesn’t matter. Not now. Just an idle speculation. I agree, we should get her into Valdemar if we can. I think it would make all the difference.: He felt Ratha’s reticence, and didn’t press. Whatever it was, if it was important enough, Ratha would tell him in his own time.

:You are clear, now,: the Companion concluded. :I will check ahead.:

Eldan double-checked the road through the eyes of every bird and beast he could touch, and confirmed Ratha’s statement. He opened his eyes again, and touched Kero on the elbow, carefully.

“We can go,” he said quietly. “We’ve both checked.”

“Good,” she replied, a hint of relief in her voice. “I was beginning to wonder if I was going to spend the night in this tree.”

She caught the branch she was sitting on and swung down to the one below. Eldan followed her, marveling at her agility, and her ability to move so well in the twilight gloom.

“Oh, I can think of worse places to spend the night than in a tree,” he replied lightly, as he lowered himself down onto the ground beside her.

“So can I, and I’ve probably been in most of them. Can we take to the road?” She dusted her hands off on her breeches, and unwound Hellsbane’s reins from the snag she’d tethered the mare to.

“So far. Ratha’s going on ahead. He says he’s found a goat-track we can use if more of those patrols show up.”

She turned a sober face toward him. “I hope he’s finding cover for us in case more of those—things—show up. I don’t want to meet one of them out in the open with nowhere to hide.”

“No more do I.” He shuddered at the thought of it, and marveled at her courage, who’d encountered the creatures—whatever they were—alone, without panicking.

She’s incredible, he thought for the hundredth time, as he followed directly in Hellsbane’s tracks. I have to get her back to Valdemar. I have to. She’ll never want to leave....

Fourteen

They’re thinking at each other again, Kero observed, trying not to cringe. With Eldan sitting and the Companion lying beneath a roof of living pine boughs, the Herald gazed deeply into Ratha’s eyes, both of them oblivious to everything around them. The ground was invisible under a litter of pine needles that must date back ten or twenty years. They’d left Kero on guard while the two of them conferred. If Kero hadn’t known the sky was clear, she’d have sworn there was a storm coming; it was that dark under this tree.

She looked away after a few moments, and decided that halfway up this same pine tree would be just about the best lookout point. She should be able to see quite a distance up the main valley from there. And she wouldn’t have to watch Eldan and his Companion.

As usual, they’d traveled by night, stopping just before dawn to find a place to hole up in during the day. For the past night they’d been paralleling the main road down the center of a series of linked valleys. The closer they got to the Valdemar border, the less populated the countryside became—but the terrain was a lot rougher, and the alternatives to the main roads fewer. Their hiding place this time had been a little pocket-valley off the main vale. And it wasn’t a place where Kero would have stopped if she’d had any choice. There was a shepherd’s town—not a village, but a town, rating a main square, a marketplace, and the largest temple of the Sunlord Kero had seen yet—at the head of the valley. This had been the best they could do, and it hadn’t been a terribly secure place to stay. A good-sized stand of tall pines with branches that drooped down to the ground ensured that there was no grass here; there was no water either, no one would stumble across them bringing his sheep to pasture. The pines themselves provided cover; one sheltered Hellsbane, one protected Ratha, and one kept the two of them hidden beneath the tentlike boughs.

But it was still open, and too close to that town to make any of them feel comfortable. Kero knew she slept lightly, and she was fairly certain the same could be said of Eldan and Ratha. After they woke, Eldan seemed preoccupied, and finally asked Kero to stand watch while he and his Companion talked.

Kero had a shrewd notion that strategy was not going to be the subject—that she was. She had gotten the impression more than once that Ratha liked her, but didn’t entirely approve of her. Certainly the Companion wasn’t likely to approve of her as a long-term liaison for his Herald.

He thinks a lot like his Herald, she reflected, climbing through the scratchy pine boughs carefully, to avoid making the tree shake. They couldn’t afford any carelessness; there had been too many near-escapes in the past few days. The hunters were getting thicker, and more, not less, persistent.

Somehow, in the next couple of days, they had to make a try at the Border. Which meant that parting from him was only days away. She settled herself on a sturdy limb, and blinked her burning, blurring eyes back into focus. Blessed Agnira, what am I going to do? Standing watch didn’t occupy a great deal of her attention, which meant she had more than enough left over to worry. I’m in love with this man. He’s in love with me. Should be a happy ending in there somewhere, if this was only a ballad....

She bit her lip to keep from crying. The whole relationship is impossible, that’s all there is to it. It’s all the same problems that I had with Daren, only worse, because I do love him. I want to be with him more than I’ve ever wanted any other person in my life.

But that was the key: any other person. Her independence had been dearly bought, and she wasn’t about to give it up now.

If she went with him, giving up her position in the Skybolts, what would she do in Valdemar? The regular army might not take her, and if they did, she would undoubtedly find herself on the wrong end of rules and regulations every time she turned around. With her record, she could ask for concessions from a Company that she could never get from a regular army force. Her peculiar talents did not fit into the parameters of a regular army. She wasn’t a foot or line soldier, she wasn’t heavy or even light infantry, and she was in no way going to fit into heavy or light cavalry. She was a scout—well, that was a job for the foot soldier. She was a skirmisher—that was under the aegis of either light infantry (bow) or light cavalry (sword). She knew more about tactics than most of the regulation officers she’d met, and that would certainly earn her no points. Lerryn encouraged the input of his junior officers, but that simply wasn’t so, outside of mercenary Companies.

That assumed they’d even take her in the first place; many regular armed forces wouldn’t accept former mercs because they tended to have an adverse effect on discipline.

Which would leave me living on his charity. Not a chance. I won’t ever put myself in that position again. Despite the lump in her throat and the ache in her chest at the thought of parting from Eldan, the resolution remained. Never. I have my own life, and I’m going to lead it.

He just didn’t understand what could lead someone to fight for a living, and it didn’t look as though he ever would. She’d tried to point out that if a relatively ethical person didn’t do the fighting, that would leave it to unethical people—he’d stared at her as if she was speaking Shin’a’in. For her part, she could not understand his fanatical devotion to an abstract: a country. What on earth was there about a piece of property that made it worth dying for? Never mind that territorial disputes were what paid for a merc’s talents, more often than not—she still didn’t understand it. In a way, she was as alien to him as one of those Karsite priestesses. She disturbed him more than they did, because he knew they were alien—she was the woman he loved, and seemed completely rational to him—until she would say something that completely eluded him, or he would say something that made no sense to her.

There were other differences, too; serious ones. Like his attitude toward Mindspeech. The way he shared his thoughts so freely with Ratha made her skin crawl and her shoulders tighten defensively. No one should be able to get inside your mind that closely.

It makes you vulnerable, she thought, with a shiver of real fear. What happens when you open yourself that much to anyone? Gods and demons, the power that gives them over you ... even if they never use that power, it’s a point of weakness that someone else can exploit. And will. There’s never yet been a breached wall that someone doesn’t use to invade.

Then there was that fanatical devotion to duty of his. He’d make it back to Valdemar if it killed him, just to get information back there personally. It isn’t sane, she thought grimly. It just is not sane. There are a dozen ways he could get that news back, and if he took all of them, that would virtually guarantee it would get there. Maybe not as quickly, but it would get there. But it has to be by his own personal hands....

He frightened her; as much as she loved him, she feared him, and feared for him. She was torn between that love and that fear, and when you added in her reluctance to place herself in a position where she would be dependent on him, there was only one conclusion she could come to.

It’s impossible. Oh, gods, it’s impossible. And I still love him....

She clutched the trunk of the tree in anguish, bark digging into her palm, the pain keeping tears out of her eyes. She fought to keep control, finally attaining it just as Eldan himself appeared under the tree, waving at her to come down.

She took a couple of deep breaths to make sure the lump wasn’t going to return, and to steady her nerves. Then she waved back, grinning down at him, as if nothing was wrong.

The faint frown left his brow and he grinned in return.

We’ve more important things to worry about, she told herself as she slipped down the tree as carefully as she had climbed it. Right up at the top is staying alive to reach the Border in the first place.

A rock was digging a hole in Kero’s stomach, but just now she didn’t want to move to dislodge it. “Where are they all coming from?” Eldan whispered, as they watched yet another of the Sunlord’s priestesses pause just below the entrance to their current hiding place. She pulled back the cowl of her robe, and stared up at the face of the cliff above her. It looked blank from that angle; the ledge they were lying on obscured the entrance, and Kero had seen it only because she had been up in a sturdy oak spying out the land when she’d spotted it. And it couldn’t be reached from the floor of the valley; they’d had to backtrack and come up over the ridge to get down to it.

Hopefully that meant no one would look for it. Except the priestess, like all the others, seemed to have sensed something.

From up here, they couldn’t make out her features; they could just barely distinguish her face from her blonde hair. The scarlet robe she wore was a sure sign of high rank, though—the only rank above scarlet wore gold, and there were never women in gold robes. Against the green meadow below them, she looked like some kind of exotic flower.

“I have no idea where they’re all coming from,” Kero whispered back. That was at least half a lie; at this point she was fairly sure they were tracking Need somehow. It would make sense, since neither she nor Eldan ever used unshielded Mindspeech. Since magic was forbidden, it followed that the priesthood had some way of detecting its use. And Need was created with magic; even when she wasn’t actually doing something, she must be “visible” to someone capable of detecting magic. And no doubt she could hide herself, but she had to know she was endangering her bearer, and her bearer wouldn’t know that until a priestess actually was in sight.

Kero held her breath, waiting. Surely this time the camouflage would break; they’d be spotted. This red-robe was the highest ranking priestess they’d seen yet; all the rest had been white-, blue-, or black-rank. Surely this time would mark the end.

The woman pulled her hood back up over her head, and rode off across the meadow.

Kero let out the breath she’d been holding.

Eldan put his arm across her shoulders and hugged her wordlessly. She snuggled into his shoulder for a moment, content just to enjoy it, and his warm presence.

But her mind wouldn’t stop operating.

That’s the third priestess today. We see two and three search parties every day. It’s getting harder and harder to find a place to hide by dawn.

Some of that was to be expected; they were right on the Border now, and there were regular Border patrols all the time. Eldan had mentioned that, and mentioned, too, how he’d avoided them in the past. But he had not mentioned ever seeing the clergy out on these hunts before, an omission Kero found interesting.

But although he was trying to pretend that this kind of activity was entirely normal, it was fairly obvious that he was worried. Quite worried.

Which meant that a good number of these patrols were new, and probably called out to find them.

He knew the priestesses were able to pick up something about them, but he didn’t know what, and so far Kero had been able to keep Need’s abilities from him. So far he hadn’t asked any awkward questions, and so far he didn’t seem to have made the connection that only the female clergy were detecting whatever it was. It helped that he seemed utterly incurious at moments when she’d have expected a barrage of questions. That was odd, but no odder than the fact that she was literally unable to talk about anything involving real magic to him. Absolutely, physically, unable. She’d tried, and in the end, couldn’t get the words out of her mouth.

She suspected Need had a hand in both those conditions, though she had no idea what it was doing, or why. But she was getting used to that.

She didn’t like it, but she was getting used to it.

And it was doubtless the fact that Need was attuned to women’s problems that was the reason for the priestesses detecting her, and not the priests.

That maddeningly logical part of her kept right on reasoning as she tried to enjoy the moment with his arm around her. We’ve had three narrow escapes, it said, scoldingly. Each one got narrower than the one before it. There’s no doubt about it: Need is bringing in the priestesses. We’re never going to make it across the Border together.

He’d given his word to send her his ransom, and she had every reason to believe his word was good. She had no logical reason why she should stay with him. In fact, if she wanted to ensure his survival, she should leave him. With the target traveling westward, this little section of the Border should be empty long enough for him to get across.

She inched back into the cave, grating along the sandstone, with a hollow feeling in the bottom of her stomach. She’d known all along she was going to have to face this moment, but that didn’t make it any easier now that it was here.

She stood up and dusted herself off once inside. It would be stolen rations tonight, Karsite rations. One of those narrow escapes had been just this morning, and had ended in the death of the scout who’d discovered them making their way across the ridge. His body was in a tiny hollow just below the trail, stuffed into a cavelet barely big enough to conceal him. His horse had been run off in a state of sheer animal panic, thanks to Eldan. His rations now resided in their saddlebags. Eldan had been a little squeamish about robbing the dead, but she’d just taken everything useful without a comment, and after a moment, he’d done the same.

Eldan joined her back in the tiny cave. There was just barely enough room for them and the horses, though she could never bring herself to think of Ratha as a “horse.” She never looked at him without a feeling of surprise that there was a “horse” standing there, and not another human.

Eldan handed her a strip of dried meat. She accepted it, and pulled her water skin out of the pile of her belongings.

“So,” he said, around a mouthful of the tough, tasteless stuff, “It looks like tomorrow isn’t going to be a good day to try a crossing.”

She swallowed her own mouthful. It had the consistency of old shoes, and was about as appetizing. She found herself longing for the Skybolts’ trail-rations, something she’d never have anticipated doing. At least those had been edible.

“We probably ought to hole up here for a while,” she offered, feeling her heart sink and tears threaten at the lie. “Probably they’ll give up when they don’t find anything, and leave this area clear for us to make a try.”

Eldan nodded. “That sounds right. And we’ve got supplies enough. All we need is water, and one of us can go down after it about midnight.”

“I’ll do that tonight,” she replied. “I’m better at night-moves than you are.”

He smiled in the way that made her blood heat. “I’ll agree to that,” he said huskily. “And we’ve got all day to wait. What do you say to doing something to make the time pass a little faster?”

“Yes,” she said simply, and reached for him even as he reached for her, desperation making her want him all the more. For this would be the last time, the very last time....

She shielded her thoughts and exercised every wile she had to exhaust him, both out of a desire for him that made her ache all over, and out of the need to make him sleep so deeply that little would wake him—and certainly not her departure.

Then she dozed in his arms, wanting to weep, and far too tired to do so.

Finally the sun set, and she woke out of a restless half-sleep full of uneasy dreams, fragments of things that made no sense.

She extracted herself from his embrace without making him stir, packed up her things, and waited while the sky darkened and the rising moon illuminated the meadow below. Tears kept blurring her vision as they trickled unheeded down her cheeks. She wasn’t even going to get to say “good-bye.”

She’d left a note for him, on top of the remaining rations, advising him to stay where he was for as long as they held out, then make his crossing attempt. She told him that she loved him more than she could ever tell him—and dearest gods, those words had been hard to write—and she told him that she could not go with him. “We’re too different,” she’d said. “And we’re too smart not to know that. So—I took the coward’s way out of this. I admit it; I’m running away. Besides, I hate saying good-bye. And don’t you forget you owe me; I have to replace my gear somehow!”

She didn’t look back at him, where he was curled up against the back wall of the cave; that would only make it harder to leave. Instead, she saddled Hellsbane and strapped on the packs, then led her toward the mouth of the cave, knowing that the familiar sound of hooves on rock would never wake him.

But Ratha was suddenly there, between her and the entrance, blocking her way.

Before she could react to that, a strange voice echoed in the back of her mind. :Where are you going?: it said sternly, :And why are you leaving in stealth?:

She gulped, too startled by this sudden manifestation of Ratha’s powers to do anything more than stare. But the Companion did not move, and finally she was forced to answer him.

Mindspeech was not what she would have chosen if she’d been offered a choice, but if she spoke aloud, she might wake Eldan, and then she’d never be able to leave him.... So although it made her stomach roil to answer the Companion that way, she ordered her thoughts and “spoke” as clearly as Warrl had taught her.

:I have to go,: she told Ratha. :I’m putting Eldan in danger while I’m with him.:

:He was in danger when you found him,: the Companion pointed out with remorseless logic. :What difference does your leaving make?:

She took a deep breath, and rubbed her arms to get rid of the chill this conversation was giving her. :It’s the sword,: she said finally. :It’s magic, and I’m fairly sure that’s what has brought the hunt down on us. More than that, it is magic that only works for a woman, which may be why the priestesses are involved. And it’s very powerful, I really don’t know how powerful.:

The Companion’s blue eyes held her without a struggle. :So,: Ratha said finally. :Your sword must be attracting these women. I agree that may be why no priests have hit on the trail. Why not abandon it?:

:And leave it for them to find?: she flared. :Do you want something like that in the hands of your enemies? It may not let me go, but if it does, be sure it will have a new bearer before the sun dawns. My bet would be on a priestess finding it, which might be good for your land or bad. I don’t think any of us dare take a chance on which it would be.:

:True.: Ratha seemed to look on her with a little more favor. :And by taking this sword of yours away, the hunters all follow you, and you leave the Border here open to our crossing. You sacrifice your safety for ours, becoming a target leading away from us.:

:I think so,: she said with a sigh. :I hope so. I’m going to double back to Menmellith, which would have been our logical move if we’d been blocked here. That should make sense to them, and since they’ve been following the sword and not an actual trail, they’ll follow me and ignore you.:

The Companion nodded. :You are very wise—and braver than I thought. Thank you.:

He moved out of the way, and she led Hellsbane past him, onto the narrow ledge and the path that led up to it, still refusing to look back.

:Good luck,: she heard behind her as she emerged into the moon-flooded night. :May the gods of your choice work on your behalf, Kerowyn. You are deserving of such favor. And may we all one day meet again.:

That started the tears going again; she blinked her eyes clear enough to see the path, but no more. She had to move slowly, because she was feeling her way, and she was profoundly grateful that Hellsbane was surefooted and could see the path. She couldn’t stop crying until she’d reached the ridge above the cave. There, she took several deep breaths, and forced herself to stare up at the stars until she got herself under control.

Its over, and I’ve finished it myself. Ratha and his own sense of duty will keep him from following. It never had a chance of working between us anyway, and at least I’ve ended it while we were still in love.

She closed her eyes, and rubbed them with the back of her hand, until the last trace of tears and grit was gone. Then she set Hellsbane’s nose westward, and descended the ridge, heading for Menmellith. Soon the hunters would be following, and she needed a head start.

I’ve done brighter things in my life than this, she thought, cowering in the shadow of a huge boulder and wishing that she wasn’t quite so exposed on the top of this ridge. But this was the only place she had been able to find that had any cover at all, and she had to see down her backtrail. Without Eldan, and his ability to look through the eyes of the animals about him, she was finding herself more than a bit handicapped.

The hunters had found her in the middle of the night, as she crossed from the heavy oak-and-pine forests into pine-and-scrub. She’d felt those unseen “eyes” on her just about at midnight, and this time they hadn’t gone away until she had crossed and recrossed a stream, hoping the old saw about “magic can’t cross running water” was true. By the time dawn bloomed behind her, the human hunters were hot on her trail, and not that far away, either. The best she could figure was that the “whatever-it-was” had alerted its masters, and they, in turn, had alerted the searchers directly in her path.

Dawn saw her doggedly guiding the mare over low mountains (or very tall hills) that were more dangerous than the territory she’d left behind, because the shalelike rock they were made of was brittle and prone to crumbling without warning. She didn’t dare stop when she actually saw a search party top a ridge several hills behind her, and caught the flash of scarlet that signaled the presence of the red-robe among them. So there was to be no rest for her today; instead, she set Hellsbane at a grueling pace across some of the grimmest country she’d ever seen. This area was worse than the near-virgin forest, because she kept coming on evidence that people had lived here at one time. Secondary growth was always harder to force a path through than an old forest; tangly things seemed to thrive on areas that had been cleared for croplands, or where people had lived. This growth was all second- and third-stage; pine trees and heavy bushes, thorny vines and scrubby grass. All things that seemed to seize Hellsbane’s legs and snag in Kero’s clothing.

She had left Hellsbane drinking and got up on another ridge to look back about noon, and as she peered around her boulder, she saw the trackers still behind her, spotting them as they rode briefly in the open before taking to cover. This time they weren’t several ridges away; they were only one.

She swore pungently, every heartache and regret she’d been nursing since leaving Eldan forgotten. She had something more important to worry about than heartbreak. Survival.

Hellfires. They’re good. Better than I thought. And they were gaining on her with every moment she dallied.

She slid down the back of the ridge and slung herself up on the mare’s back, sending her out under the cover of more pine trees. And the only thing she could be grateful for was that the day was overcast and Hellsbane was spared the heat of the sun.

They’re going to catch up, she thought grimly. They know this area, and I don’t; that’s what let them get so close in the first place. I’m in trouble. And I don’t know if I’m going to get out of it this time.

She wanted to “look” back at her pursuers, tempted to use her Gift for the first time in a long time—

And stopped herself just in time.

That isn’t me, she realized, urging Hellsbane into greater speed as they scrambled down a gravel-covered slope. Something out there wants me to use my Gift, probably so they can find me. Or catch and hold me until they come.

She fought down panic; Hellsbane was a good creature, and bright beyond any ordinary horse, but if she panicked, so would Hellsbane, and the warsteed might bolt. If Hellsbane took it into her head to flee, Kero wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop her until she’d run her panic out.

And that could end in her broken neck, or the mare’s, or both.

Kero kept Hellsbane in the cover of the trees, even though this meant more effort than riding in the open. She looked automatically behind her as they topped the next hill, and saw not one, but two parties of pursuers; both coming down off the slope she’d just left, and both parties so confident of catching her now that they weren’t even trying to hide. They couldn’t see her, but they could see her trail; she wasn’t wasting any time trying to hide it.

They were perhaps a candlemark’s ride from her, if she stopped right now. The temptation to leave cover and make a run for it was very great. If she let Hellsbane run, she might be able to lose them as darkness fell.

Assuming that their horses weren’t fresh.

Hellsbane had been going since last night, and she couldn’t do much of a run at this point.

They could. And would.

Kero sent the mare across a section of open trail when they dropped out of sight, hoping to get across it before they got back into viewing range. This was one of the worst pieces of trail she’d hit yet; barely wide enough for a horse, bisecting a steep slope, with a precipitous drop down onto rocks on one side and an equally precipitous shale cliff on the other. No place to go if you slipped, and nowhere to hide if you were being followed.

She breathed a sigh of relief as they got into heavier cover before the hunters came into view. She hadn’t wanted to rush the mare, but her back had felt awfully naked out there.

Thunder growled overhead; Kero looked up, pulling Hellsbane up for a moment under the cover of a grove of scrub trees just tall enough to hide them. She hadn’t been paying any attention to the weather, but obviously a storm had been gathering while she fled westward, because the sky was black in the west, and the darkness was moving in very fast—

How fast, she didn’t quite realize, until lightning hit the top of a pine just ahead of her, startling Hellsbane into shying and bucking, and half-blinding her rider. The thunder that came with it did deafen her rider.

And the downpour that followed in the next breath damned near drowned her rider.

It was like standing under a waterfall; she couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her. She dismounted and automatically peered through the curtain of rain back down the trail behind her—

Just in time to see it disappear, melting beneath the pounding rain. She stared in complete disbelief as the trail literally vanished, leaving her pursuers no clue as to where she had gone, or where she was going.

In fact, the part of the trail she and the mare were standing on was showing signs of possible disintegration....

Taking the hint, she took Hellsbane’s reins in hand and began leading her through the torrent of water. Streams poured down the side of the hill and crossed the trail; the water was ankle-deep, and carried sizable rocks in its churning currents. She found that out the hard way, as one of them hit her ankle with a crack that she felt, rather than heard.

She went down on one knee, eyes filling with tears at the pain—but this was not the time or the place to stop, no matter how much it hurt. She forced herself to go on, while icy water poured from the sky and she grew so numb and chilled that she couldn’t even shiver.

And grateful for the rescue; too grateful even to curse that errant rock. This—thing—came up so fast—she thought, peering at the little she could see of the footing ahead of her, leading Hellsbane step by painful step. It—could almost be—supernatural.

In fact, a suspicion lurked in the back of her mind perhaps Need had had something to do with it. There was no way of telling, and it could all be just sheer coincidence.

Still, there was no doubt that it had saved her.

Always provided she could find some shelter before it washed her away.

And wouldn’t that be ironic, she found herself thinking wryly. Saved from the Karsites only to drown in the storm! Whoever says the gods don’t have a sense of humor....

Fifteen

I’m glad Hellsbane can see, because I can’t. Kerowyn’s eyelids were practically glued shut with fatigue. She rode into the Skybolts’ camp in a fog of weariness so deep that she could hardly do more than stick to Hellsbane’s saddle. The mare wasn’t in much better case; she shambled, rather than walked, with her head and tail down, and Kero could feel ribs under her knee instead of the firm flesh that should be there.

She rode in with the rain, rain that had followed her all the way from beyond the Karsite Border. Or maybe she had been chasing a storm the entire time; she wasn’t sure. All she did know was that the rain had saved her, and continued to save her as she traveled—washing out her tracks as soon as she made them, for one thing. It also seemed as if it was keeping those supernatural spies of the Karsites from taking to the air, for another; at any rate she hadn’t felt those “eyes” on her from the moment the rain started to come down. And last of all, the mud and rain had completely exhausted her pursuers’ horses, who had none of Hellsbane’s stamina.

From the exact instant when the first storm hit, she’d been able to make her soggy way across Karse virtually unhindered. She hadn’t been comfortable, in fact, she spent most of the time wet to the skin and numb with cold, but she hadn’t had to worry about becoming a guest in a Karsite prison.

Her only real regret: she’d had to ride Hellsbane after the first storm slackened; that rock hadn’t broken her ankle, but it had done some damage. A bone-bruise, she thought. She wasn’t precisely a Healer, but that was what it felt like. She’d hated putting that much extra strain on the mare, but there was no help for it.

Luck or the sword or some benign godlet had brought her across the border at one of the rare Menmellith borderposts. She’d introduced herself and showed her Mercenary Guild tag, and her Skybolt badge; she’d hoped for a warm meal and a dry place to sleep, but found cold comfort among the army regulars.

They damn near picked me up and threw me out. Bastards. They could at least have given me a chance to dry off—

At least they’d told her where the Skybolts had gone to ground; she’d ridden two days through more heavy rains to get there, so numb that she wasn’t even thinking about what she was likely to find.

The camp didn’t seem much smaller; she’d feared the worst, that half or three-fourths of the Skybolts were gone. But it was much shabbier; the tents were make do and secondhand, and the banner at the sentry post was clumsily sewn with a base of what looked like had once been someone’s cloak.

The rain slacked off as they reached the perimeter of the camp itself. Hellsbane halted automatically at the sentry post; the sentry was a youngster Kero didn’t recognize, probably a new recruit. He seemed very young to Kero.

So new he hasn’t got the shiny rubbed off him yet.

And he looked eager and a little apprehensive as he eyed her.

Probably because I look like I just dragged through the ninth hell.

She dragged out her Skybolt badge and waved it at him. “Scout Kerowyn,” she croaked, days and nights of being cold and wet having left her with a cough and a raspy throat. “Reporting back from the Menmellith Border.”

Before the boy could answer, there was a screech from beyond the first row of tents, and a black-clad wraith shot across the camp toward her, vaulting tent ropes and the tarp-covered piles of wood beside each tent.

“Kero!” Shallan screamed again, and heads popped out of some of the tents nearest the sentry post. Hellsbane was so weary she didn’t even shy; she just flicked an ear as Shallan reached them and grabbed Kero’s boot. “Kero, you’re alive!”

“Of course I’m alive,” Kero coughed, slowly getting herself out of the saddle. “I feel too rotten to be dead.”

By now more than heads were popping out of the tents and she and Shallan had acquired a small mob, all familiar faces Kero hadn’t realized she missed until now. They crowded around her, shoving the poor young sentry put of their way, all of them laughing (some with tears in their eyes), shouting, trying to get to Kero to hug her or kiss her—it was a homecoming, the kind she’d never had.

She looked around in surprise, some of her tiredness fading before their outpouring of welcome. She hadn’t known so many people felt that strongly about her, and to her embarrassment, she found herself crying, too, as she returned the embraces, the infrequent kisses, the more common back-poundings and well-meant curses. They’re family. They’re my family, more than my own blood is. This is what Tarma was trying to tell me, the way it is in a good Company; this is what makes Lerryn a good Captain.

“I have to report!” she shouted over the bedlam. Shallan nodded her blonde head, and seized her elbow, wriggling with determination through the press of people. Gies showed up at Hellsbane’s bridle and waved to her before leading the mare off to the picket line.

She knows him—yes, she’s going, she’ll be fine.

Word began to pass, and the rest parted for her when they realized what she’d said; a merc unit didn’t stand on much protocol, but what it did, it took seriously. Somewhere in the confusion someone got the bright idea that they should all meet at the mess tent; the entire mob headed in that direction, while Shallan took Kero off in the direction of the Captain’s tent.

“I’ve got the legendary good news and bad news.” They slogged through mud up to their ankles, and Kero blessed Lerryn’s insistence on camp hygiene. In a morass like this, fevers and dysentery were deadly serious prospects unless a camp was kept under strict sanitary conditions. The blonde looked up as the gray sky began dripping again, scowling in distaste. “So what do you want first?”

“The bad, and make it the casualties.” Kero sighed and braced herself to hear how many friends were dead or hurt beyond mending; this was the last thing she wanted to hear, but the very first she needed to to know.

Who am I going to be mourning tonight? she asked herself, the thought weighing down her heart the way the sticky clay weighed down her steps.

“Right.” Shallan grimaced. “That’s the worst of the bad, because number one was Lerryn and number two was his second, Icolan. In fact, most of the officers didn’t make it out. It’s like every one of them had a great big target painted on his back; I’ve never seen anything like it.” She glanced over to see how Kero was taking the news—and Kero didn’t know quite what to say or do. It was just too much to take all at once.

She felt stunned, as if someone had just hit her in the stomach and it hadn’t begun to hurt quite yet. Lerryn? Dear Agnetha—it didn’t seem possible; Lerryn was everything a good Captain had to be. There was no way he should be dead.... “He? His?” she said sharply, as the sense of what she’d just heard penetrated. Shallan never worded anything by accident. “Does that mean—”

Shallan’s head bobbed, her short hair plastered to her scalp by the rain. “Both the women made it. The only problem is that the higher-ranked one is—”

“Ardana Flinteyes.” Kero took in a deep breath and held it. That was bad news for the Company, or so Kero judged, and she was fairly certain Shallan felt the same way. Ardana should by rights never have risen above the rank she’d held before the rout. She’s a good fighter, but she’s got no head for strategy, she blows up over the least little thing and stays hot for months, and—I don’t like her ethics. No, that’s not true. I don’t like the fact that she doesn’t seem to have many. “So Ardana’s a top-ranker? Not over—”

“Worse,” Shallan said grimly, then looked significantly at the Captain’s tent, with its tattered standard flying overhead. It wasn’t the crossed swords anymore. It was flint and steel striking and casting a lightning bolt.

“She’s the Captain?” Kero whispered, appalled by the prospect.

Shallan nodded, once.

Kero took a deep breath. The Company had to go to someone. At least Ardana had experience, and with this Company. It was better than disbanding. Well, it was probably better than disbanding. She stopped where she was and stared at the new standard, oblivious to the rain pouring down on her. After all, she was already soaked.

“The good news is that all the scouts made it,” Shallan said hurriedly, as if to get her mind off the uneasy prospect of Ardana as Captain. “And I’ve got a tent, a whole one; it fits four and there’s only me and Relli. You can come on in with us, we don’t mind.”

Kero sighed; she’d rather not have shared with anyone, but she doubted there was a choice. It was shelter, and the company was good. She’d rather have her own—but maybe she could manage that in the next couple of days. Obviously the Company had lost all of the equipment left behind during the rout.

“I’ll take you up on that,” she said, surprised at the gratitude she heard in her voice beneath the weariness. She straightened her back and squared her shoulders. “Might as well get this over with while I can still stand.”

She smoothed back her soaked hair with both hands, and smiled slightly at the younger woman. Shallan patted her shoulder encouragingly, and led the way.

Kero stared up at the stained and mildew-spotted canvas overhead. It wasn’t her tent, but it was waterproof, and Shallan and Relli had gotten the mildew stink out of it somehow. She was happy just to be lying down, and dry, and warm. Granted that the bedroll was looted from who knew where, smelled of horse, and had seen better days; that didn’t matter. Dry and warm counted for a lot right now.

The interview with Ardana had not proved the ordeal Kero feared it might be. Except that she ignored half of what I said about the Karsites, where Lerryn would have had me in there till I fell over, taking notes. That was disturbing; more disturbing was that Ardana really didn’t seem interested in the things she had asked about. It was as if she was going through the motions, as if she had some other opponent in mind than the Karsites.

But just about everyone had deduced from Hellsbane’s condition what Kero’s must be like; when Ardana let her go, they’d sent Shallan over to bring her to the mess tent—but then they sat her down and got her fed, and didn’t ask too many questions. Then someone had brought in a spare shirt, and someone else produced breeches and socks, and a third party a heavy woolen sweater—

They’d stripped her to the skin right there in the mess tent, amid a lot of laughter and rude jokes about how it would be more fun to bed her sword than her, right now.

“So change that!” she’d retorted. “You can all start buying me steaks!” Meanwhile she had been pulling on the first warm, dry clothing she’d had in a week.

Then they ran her over to Shallan’s tent under a pilfered tarp, so she wouldn’t get wet again. It had all been a demonstration of caring that had left her a little breathless.

Maybe that was why she was having trouble falling asleep.

I was right, she thought, staring at the mottled ceiling, listening to the rain drum on it. I was right to come back. This is where I belong. I could never fit in with Eldan, with his friends, no more than I could have with Daren and the Court. I’d have only made both of us miserable trying.

Her eyes burned; she sniffed, and rubbed them with her sleeve, glad that Shallan and Relli were off somewhere else. Probably in the mess tent; they were both passable fletchers, and the Skybolts had lost a lot of arrows....

A lot of other things, too. Kero thankfully shifted her thoughts to the general troubles. The Company was in trouble. Equipment lost, officers decimated, about a third of the roster gone and another third on the wounded list—and Menmellith had declined to pay them more than half their fee, on the grounds that they hadn’t stopped the “bandits,” and they hadn’t come up with real proof that they were operating with more than the Karsite blessing. The Guild, when appealed to, had reluctantly ruled in Menmellith’s favor.

It could always be worse. The Wolflings are going to have to find another Company to combine with. There’s hardly enough of them left to fill out one rank.

Dearest goddess, I’m going to miss Lerryn.

There were a lot of people she was going to miss. And right on the top of the list was Eldan.

Her throat closed again, and she choked down a sob. I love him, and it would never have worked. I love him, and I’m never going to see him again. He probably thinks I deserted him under fire or something.

She’d been hoping for some kind of message from him when she reached the camp; he knew what her Company was, and messages moved swiftly through the aegis of the Guild. But there had been nothing.

He probably got back to Valdemar and came to his senses. He’s probably sitting with friends now, with pretty little Court ladies all around him, thinking what a lucky escape he had, that he could have been stuck with this barbarian merc with a figure like a sword and a face like a piece of granite. She blinked, and a couple of hot tears spilled down her temples into her hair. He’s probably so grateful I left that he’s burning incense to the gods. He’s probably even making jokes about me. Like, “how many mercs does it take to change a candle—”

More tears followed the first. It doesn’t matter. I love him anyway. I’ll always love him.

And I’m better off alone. We both are.

She turned over on her side and faced the canvas wall, with one of the blankets pulled up over her head so they’d think she was asleep if anyone came in. She muffled her face in her sleeve, and cried as quietly as she could manage, with hardly even a quiver of her shoulders to betray her; only the occasional sniff and the steady creeping of tears down into her pillow. And somehow she managed to cry herself to sleep.

When she woke, the tent was dark, and there was breathing on the other side of it. The steady breathing of sleep; somehow Shallan and Relli had come in and settled down without her being aware of it.

She didn’t wake very thoroughly; just enough to register that she wasn’t alone, and remember who it was.

I’m not alone. Somehow that was a comforting thought. I have friends. I can live without him. That was another. Holding those thoughts warmed her; and warmed, she fell back asleep.

It was raining again. A half-dozen of them were in the mess tent, attaching heads and feathers to grooved arrow shafts. Kero reckoned up the weeks in her head, and came to a nasty total.

“This is the winter rains, isn’t it?” Kero asked ShalIan, as they reached for feathers at the same moment. “We’ve gone over into winter, haven’t we?”

Shallan’s studious inspection of the arrow fletchings didn’t fool Kero a bit. “Come on,” she said warningly. “I’m going to find out sooner or later. Cough it up.”

“We’ve hit the winter rainy season, yes,” Shallan replied, glancing uneasily over her shoulder at Kero. “It did come awfully early, but—”

“But nothing. If this is winter, why aren’t we in winter quarters?” Kerb lowered her voice, after a warning look from Relli. “What are we doing still out in the field?” she hissed.

“Well,” Shallan said unhappily, taking a great deal of time over setting her feather. “You know we didn’t get paid enough. And we lost a lot of manpower and material—”

“And? So?” Kero had a feeling she knew what was coming up, and she wasn’t going to like it. “That’s what the reserves are for, Right?”

“Well—uh—” Shallan floundered.

Finally Relli came to her partner’s rescue. “We aren’t going to use the reserves,” she said tersely. “Ardana has a line on a job.”

That was what I was afraid of. “In winter.”

Shallan nodded. “In winter. It’s south of here—”

Kero just snorted. “I come from south of here. We’re going to be fighting in cold rain if we’re lucky. If we’re not—snow, up to our asses, for the next three months. And ice. I trained in weather like that, but most of the rest of you didn’t. Think what it’s going to do to the horses, if you won’t think of yourself!”

“It’s not that bad,” Relli said sturdily, though she wouldn’t look Kero in the face. “It’s in Seejay. Flat as your hand, and not more than a couple of inches of snow all winter. And it’s not supposed to be a hard job—it’s a merchant’s guild thing. Economic. One side or the other is going to get tired of paying, and we can go home. Frankly, it’s better to fight there in winter than summer—summer you’re like to cook in your armor.”

So instead we drown—provided we don’t die of exhaustion on a forced march down through Ruvan.

“So is this just a rumor, or have you got something more substantial?” she asked.

“I’m pretty sure it’s going down,” Relli told her. “I got it from Willi.”

Since Willi was the Company accountant, it was a pretty fair bet that the bid was in. Kero sighed.

“I suppose it could always be worse—”

Three months later, she found herself wishing for that hip-deep snow.

She cleaned mud off her equipment and Shallan’s, scouring savagely at the rust underneath on Shallan’s scale-mail. Rain dribbled down on the roof of her tent, and down the inside of the shabby walls. Practically anything would have been better than the bog that was Seejay in winter.

A cold bog. One that froze overnight and thawed by midday, only to freeze again as soon as the sun set.

And they were the only Company that had been hired.

That should have told us something from the start, she told herself, for the thousandth time. We should have walked before we took this one.

Fighting beside them were the cheapest of free-lancers, one step up from prison scum; drunks and madmen, vicious alley rats who’d knife an ally quick as an enemy. No point in depending on them—and no turning your back on them. The sentries caught the bastards sneaking around camp every night and most days, and everyone had something missing.

Facing them were more prison-scum and a “company” of non-Guild conscripts; old men too damned stubborn to quit fighting, and bewildered farmers hauled in after the harvest.

That was the reason for holding this “war” in winter in the first place: it was after harvest and trading season. No money-making opportunities lost to combat, she thought cynically. As witness the little “bazaar” just outside camp. Everything they think a merc could want; from flea-ridden whores to watered wine.

This entire setup had Kero completely disgusted. Ardana’s “deal”—such as it was—had been for half pay and half resupply. First of all, she should have known never to trust them on that. Secondly, she should have gotten the resupply in advance.

The total had come to half their usual fee, which Ardana covered, stridently defensive, by pointing out that they were undermanned, and she couldn’t ask the full fee for what was effectively half a Company. Then the “re-supply” train had shown up—late—and there was nothing Ardana could say that would defend what came in with that.

We got tents, all right—old enough to have served the Sunhawks in Grandmother’s fighting days; patched, and rotting. We got armor—cheap and rusted. We got weapons—and I practiced with better under Tarma; dull pot-metal that wouldn’t hold an edge if you got a gods-blessing on it. And food—stale journey-rations that could have given the Karsites lessons in tasteless, barrels of meat too salty to eat, flour full of weevils. And as for the horses—Kero shuddered. They’d had to shoot half of them, and half of the ones they’d shot had been so disease- and parasite-riddled they couldn’t even be eaten.

By then it was too late. They’d given their bond. If they defaulted, the Skybolts’ reputation—already suffering from the defeat in Menmellith—would be decimated.

We should have defaulted, Kero thought angrily, cursing under her breath as the metal scales on Shallan’s armor came off in her hands. We should have defaulted anyway. Anything is better than this. The Guild would back us, once they heard about the “supplies.

The “war” had turned out to be waged within a House; two factions of the same merchants’ guild. Kero wasn’t sure what it was about—mines, or some other kind of raw material, she thought—and she wasn’t sure she cared. Neither side gave a rat’s ass about the welfare of the troops they’d hired—the Skybolts were just so many warm, weapon-wielding bodies to them, and if they thought about it at all, they probably assumed that the Company members welcomed a certain number of losses, as it made for fewer to split the pay at the end.

Kero had been made the officer over the scouts, and that made it all the worse for her. She was the one who had to take Ardana’s stupid orders—distilled from the even stupider orders of their employers—and try and make something of them that stood any kind of chance of working.

Kero dug into her kit for some of the half-cured horse-hide that was all they had been able to salvage from those poor, slaughtered nags, and laboriously patched it into the back of Shallan’s mail-coat. Then she stitched the scales that had come off back into that, cursing when the holes broke where they’d rusted through.

Fewer and fewer of her friends came back after each foray; she’d managed to keep most of the scouts alive, but as for the rest—

It was pretty demoralizing. Ardana didn’t have any strategy worth the name. The merchants dictated, and she followed their orders, directing the Skybolts—skirmishers all—to fight like a Company of light cavalry. They’d been cut down to two-thirds normal strength by the Menmellith affair—now they were down to half of that. Mostly wounded, thank the gods, and not dead—but definitely out of the action.

She shook the corselet and growled under her breath. Like the situation with her command, it was so tempting to just do what she could and leave the rest to the gods—but—Damned if I’m going to leave my friend half-protected. She cut the stitching on the faulty scales, took a rock from her hearth to use as a hammer, a bit of wood to use as an anvil and a nail for a awl, and punched new holes below the old ones, then stitched them back on.

Miserable cheap bastards. If I’d gone with Eldan, who’d be doing this for her?

If she’d gone with Eldan—the thought occurred a dozen times a day, and it didn’t hurt any the less for repetition.

I didn’t go with Eldan. I came back to my people. If Ardana won’t take care of them, I have to do what I can to make up for that.

And part of that was making sure her scouts stayed well-protected.

She held up the corselet and shook it, frowning at it, just as Shallan burst through the tent door, ripping one of the tie-cords loose as she did so.

“We’re being hit!” she cried, as a fire-arrow lodged in the canvas of the tent wall. Kero lurched to her feet, just as something large and panicked crashed into the tent wall.

Kero came to lying on her back, with her left arm and shoulder on fire. Literally; there was a fire-arrow lodged in her arm.

She screamed, as much from shock as pain, and rolled over into the mud. She put out the fire, but she broke the arrow off and drove the head deep into her shoulder, and passed out again from the pain.

The next time she woke, she wished she hadn’t. She couldn’t believe how much she hurt. Without opening her eyes, she took slow, deep breaths the way Tarma had taught her, hoping it would make the pain ebb a little.

- just had Need

She had never been wounded before without having the sword with her—and now she realized just what a difference that made. She forced her eyes open, and blinked away tears of pain until she could see.

Canvas.

She turned her head to the left, since turning it to the right only made things hurt worse. Evidently she wasn’t the only victim of the camp raid; there were a dozen others laid out in various stages of injury within easy reach.

Someone stood up just beyond the last one; the Company Healer, Eren. She tried to move a little too far, and gasped; he jumped as if he was the one who’d been shot, and somehow turned in midair so that he came down facing her.

He didn’t say a word; just moved while her eyes blurred, and seemed to materialize beside her.

“What is it?” he asked, resting his hand lightly on her bandaged shoulder. The pain ebbed enough for her to speak.

“I need that damned sword,” she whispered. “It’s—I need it, that’s all.”

To her relief, since she hadn’t told anyone about everything the blade could do, he just nodded. “If you have it, can I get rid of you?” She nodded, and he narrowed his eyes in thought for a moment. “Anything that saves my strength is a bonus. I’ll send somebody off for it.”

He took his hand away, and the pain surged over her in a wave. She just endured for half an eternity—then, with no warning at all, the pain was gone.

She gasped again, but this time with relief, and opened her eyes slowly. Shallan knelt beside her, with one hand over Kero’s right, which in turn she was holding clasped to Need’s hilt.

“What happened?” she asked, only now able to think of anything besides her own pain.

“The last straw.” Shallan looked like she hadn’t slept in a while. “Or rather, several last straws. First we got hit by the natives. They’re tired of having their farms trampled, their houses looted, and their daughters raped.”

“But we didn’t—” she stopped at the look Shallan gave her.

“Much,” Shallan amended. “You officers haven’t been told everything. No rape, anyway; the lads know us women’d have them singing a permanent soprano when we found out about it. But when we’re hungry and cold and mad as hell, things happen. Anyway, mostly it hasn’t been us, they just didn’t give a damn about who it was.”

“What happened, then?” Kero asked, shamed past blushing. Have we come that low so fast?

“You were about the only real casualty in that particular raid. We lost a couple of horses, couple of tents, but mostly it looked worse than it was. All these—” she waved her hand at the wounded lying beyond Kero “—were from the guerrilla ambushes they’ve been laying for both sides. You’ve been out of things for about four days. They’re whittling us down by ones and twos is what they’re doing. Caught one, the other day. Twelve-year-old kid. Said they’re trying to make life miserable for us, the Skybolts, so we’ll pack up and leave. He said their leader figures when we leave, the fight’s over.”

“I—can’t fault his reasoning.” This was not why she’d gotten into fighting, to destroy the lives of ordinary people.

Shallan shrugged. “No more can I,” she admitted. “Well, the absolute last straw just showed up today. The merchant-men. Demanding to know why we haven’t won this thing for them, since we’re supposed to be so good.”

Outrage filled her and died just as quickly. These fat, complacent sideline-sitters didn’t know fighting, and didn’t care. They probably worked their beasts the same—use them up, throw them away. After all, we’re only mercs. No one is going to miss us....

“Ardana’s called a meeting,” Shallan concluded, the shrewd and calculating expression on her face telling Kero that she’d read every thought as clearly as if she’d had Kero’s Thoughtsensing ability. “Think you’re up to it?”

Kero attempted to sit. And succeeded. And for the first time in a long time felt unleavened gratitude for Need. “Give me a hand up, and a shoulder to lean on, and I’m up to it,” she asserted, though her head swam for a moment. Her shoulder didn’t hurt, it itched, itched horribly, which made her think that the sword was making up for the four days it had been away from her, all at once. With every moment she felt stronger, and as Shallan helped her to her feet, she was able to ignore what pain there was and keep herself upright with a minimum of help.

Which is just as well. I have the feeling I’m not going to like this meeting.

By the time they reached the mess tent, only iron will kept her from tearing the bandage from her shoulder and scratching the wound bloody. She ground her teeth with the effort it took to leave the thing alone.

Shallan found a place for them by dint of glaring at a couple of the skirmishers until they gave up their seats on the splintery half-log benches. A few more arrived after they did; not many, though, and when Kero looked around, she realized with a start that the Company was down to less than half the strength they’d had when they rode in here. Ardana’s incompetence had decimated them that badly. But worse than the numbers was the fact that many of the mercs wouldn’t meet her eyes, or looked away after a moment.

There was no sense of unity as there had been whenever Lerryn held a meeting. Only unhappiness and unease, and a feeling of resignation, as if they all knew the orders would be bad, and no longer cared.

Ardana finally showed up, with one of the merchants following like a fat shadow, stalking to the front of the tent with a jerky, stiff-legged gait that reminded Kero of a half-mad, half-starved dog she’d seen once that was trying to face down a much bigger animal over a bone. Outmatched, but too crazy to admit it.

Ardana’s scowl, which had become as much a part of her face as her flint-hard eyes, didn’t do anything to change that assessment. She knows she can’t handle this, but she can’t give it up, Kero thought wonderingly. She’s so eaten up with the importance of being Captain that she won’t step down even though she’s killing off her own Company. What is wrong with the woman? Did she get hit over the head when we weren’t looking? What turned her into this monster?

The Captain tugged at the hem of her tunic constantly, trying to pull out wrinkles that weren’t there. Like the scowl, it was a nervous habit that had emerged after her elevation to Captain.

“Our employers aren’t happy with our progress,” the woman said, into the sullen silence that followed her entrance. “They say they have reason to believe that we’re slacking off.”

A few months ago, that pronouncement would have been met with angry shouts. Now—a low rumbling, a weary growl, was all the Captain got as a response. They don’t care anymore. Not about our reputation, not about pride—they’re like saddle-galled horses, still going only because they’re being prodded and quitting hurts more.

Ardana’s lips tightened in what Kero read as satisfaction when no one said anything. “I told them we’re going to end this now. Tomorrow I want every one of you up and ready to ride—”

And the orders she outlined were nothing less than suicide. A straight charge, right up onto the line, when they had nothing backing them and their opponents had holed themselves up in the ruins of a village. The place was a maze of half-ruined buildings; ideal for defense, and impossible for cavalry. And that was if the Skybolts actually were cavalry.

Kero listened with her mouth agape, unable to believe the monumental stupidity of such a plan. It’s them, the merchants, she thought, slowly, putting what she was hearing together with what she was not hearing, but sensing from the merchant. She opened her mind to him, and was sickened by what she found there. Dearest gods. I should have read their thoughts when they were here the first time. I should have

Because what she read was worse than anything she had imagined. These men had no intention of paying the rest of their fee—but they were going to solve the problem by making certain there was no Company left to be paid.

So far as they were concerned, this final charge would solve all their problems very neatly. Most of the Skybolts would die; the rest would drift away, leaderless—six months ago, that would have been unthinkable, but demoralized as they were now, it was not only possible, it was probable. And the suicidal charge would also decimate the enemy ranks enough that the free-lancers could mop them up, and would probably be only too willing for the sake of the looting involved.

I’m on the wounded list—I won’t be going out there—that had been her first reaction, when Ardana had outlined the “battle plan.” Now she blushed with shame at her own reaction. Even I’ve sunk that low, thinking only of myself. How can I fault the others?

But the fact that she was on the wounded list gave her a weapon this fat merchant could never have anticipated. She would sacrifice her career—but better that, than to see the last of her friends going down to physical and moral death.

By Guild rules, anyone on the wounded list could sever his contract, though hardly anyone ever did.

Maybe if she walked, now, she’d wake them up, force them to see what they were being lured into.

It was worth a try.

She stood up, and suddenly every eye in the room was on her. Even Ardana stopped in mid-sentence, and stared at her in mild surprise.

“I’ve never heard such a crock of shit in my life,” Kero said, loudly and bluntly. She pointed an accusatory finger at the merchant. “He is going to get every one of us killed.” She pointed at Ardana, “And you are going to let him get away with it. Lerryn has to be spinning in his grave like an express-wagon axle.”

Ardana’s mouth dropped open; beside her, the fat merchant registered equal shock. He wasn’t thinking; just reacting. Surprise that any of these “stupid mercenaries” had seen what the “master plan” was, and outrage that the same stupid mercenary would have the audacity to challenge him on it.

Kero looked around her, slowly and deliberately. “In fact, I don’t see anyone here I’d be willing to call a Skybolt.” She turned back to Ardana, ripped the badge off her sleeve, and threw it at the Captain’s feet. “I’m severing my contract. Go hire some of that scum outside the camp to take my place. If you can find one stupid enough to go along with this.”

She turned and started to shove her way through the crowd. Behind her, Ardana suddenly woke up, and stridently ordered her to halt.

She ignored the order—as she ignored those that followed, each more hysterical and shrill than the last. Finally orders were issued to someone else—to stop and arrest her for court-martial.

That was when Kero turned back and stared her former Captain in the eyes, putting hand to hilt. “I wouldn’t try that,” she said, mildly, into the deathly quiet that followed the simple action. “I really wouldn’t. You won’t like the result.”

And she drew about an inch of blade.

Ardana went red, then white. And her hand crept to her own hilt.

That was when a half-dozen of the scouts leapt to their feet, and tore their own badges off, throwing them beside Kero’s. Then ten more, then twenty, until the air was full of the sound of tearing cloth, and there were too many people between them for Kero to even see Ardana, though she could still hear her, stridently shouting for order.

Order which she was never going to be able to command again.

Kero turned and shoved her way past the remaining Skybolts, suddenly terrified of what she’d done.

She still has a couple of loyal followers. She has people that merchant has bought. She can order them to get me, make an example of me—it’s the only way she’ll get anybody to fall into line now

She half fell across someone’s feet as she stumbled out toward her tent, to grab whatever she could and make for the road north while Ardana was still too confused to think. The tent was not too far away, and while she was winded by her weakness and her run, thanks to Need’s work she was fully capable of riding. And Hellsbane could easily outdistance any other horse in the Skybolts’ picket line, especially now.

She flung herself into the tent, and tore open her saddlebags.

Blessed Agnira, she prayed, fervently, while she stuffed belongings into the top. Blessed Agnetha—only keep her confused. Just give me that head start—

Sixteen

Hellsbane regarded the pile of dead and wilted grass under her nose with uniquely equine doubt. She gave Kero a sorrowful look, one as filled with entreaty as any spaniel could have managed, and pawed the hard-packed snow.

“Sorry girl,” Kero told her wearily, all too conscious of her own hunger, and of the cold that made her feet and hands numb. “That’s all there is. And you should be glad you can eat grass; you’re doing better than I am.”

She doubted that the warsteed understood any of that, but the mare was at least someone to talk to. And talking kept her mind off of how tired she was.

She’d avoided settlements since she began this run back up north, figuring that whatever Ardana had decided to do about her, it wasn’t going to be to Kero’s advantage. They’d ridden from dawn to sunset every day since she’d left the Skybolts’ camp, while the rain became sleet, then real snow, and the snow-cover grew thicker all the time. She’d been grateful then for all of Tarma’s training, for without it she’d never have been able to live off the land in late winter.

She and Hellsbane were both in sad condition, but they were at least alive and still able to travel if they had to. The hard run was almost over now; by nightfall she’d be at the Skybolts’ winter quarters; she’d collect her gear and get on out of there. Once she had her gear, which included her Mercenary Guild identification, she’d be in a position to take her case to the Guild itself.

She looked up at the leaden sky, and thought bitterly that it was too bad that Ardana would never be called to account for her blundering. Kero had no hope that Ardana would be punished in any way—after all, there was no point in punishing someone for being stupid—but at least there’d be that much warning in the Guild for anyone thinking of joining the Skybolts. And Kero would get her name and record clear of any charges Ardana levied against her.

Then I can go free-lance, she thought, chewing on some nourishing (if tasteless) cattail roots she’d grubbed up for herself out of a half-frozen stream. Her teeth hurt from the cold, and her hands ached as much as her teeth. Damn that bitch. I’m guiltless. She’s the one who should get it in the teeth, but I’m the one who’s going to suffer. With a record of insubordination, even if it was legal and justified, no bonded Company is ever going to be willing to take a chance on me again. I’ve got a brand of “troublemaker” on me for all time. But better that than dead.

She waited until Hellsbane had eaten her own rations down to the last strand of grass, tightened the girth, and remounted, the ache of her feet only partially relieved by tucking them in close to the mare’s warm body. Riding your horse just after she’s eaten isn’t exactly good horsemanship. Sorry Hellsbane, I don’t have much of a choice. I’d spare you if I could.

The mare shook herself, and snorted, but settled to the pace willingly enough. They rode on at a fast walk under lowering skies just as they had for days past counting, long, dull days that meant nothing more than so many leagues toward their goal. But Kero’s calculations had been right on the money; sunset saw her riding up to the village that supported the Skybolts’ winter quarters, a kind of snow-capped, stockaded heart in the midst of a cluster of buildings. Kero looked up and saw it in the distance, and felt the same kind of rush of relief and “homecoming” she’d felt on riding up to the Skybolts’ camp. She quickly repressed it, but not without a lump in her throat. This wasn’t and would never again be home. Not for her.

The village was made up of fairly unusual buildings, if one supposed this to be an ordinary village. Three inns, a blacksmith, an armorer, and several other, less identifiable places that were obviously businesses of some sort. No sign of a village market, no signs of craftsmen or farmers.

The one aspect that dominated everything was that stockade at the heart of the place.

Every town that served as winter quarters to a Company looked like this, more or less. The Company would build or buy an appropriate establishment; several buildings were needed for a Company of any size. Barracks for one thing, and you could add armory, training-ground, stables, and administrative office at the least. Once the place was up and tenanted and past its first year of occupancy, the rest would follow. The only craftsmen that would establish themselves would be smiths and armorers; for the rest, members of the Merchants’ and Traders’ Guilds would take care of anything material the wintering troops needed to spend money on. And for their nonmaterial needs, the innkeepers would take care of anything they might desire. The Skybolts hadn’t been established long enough to acquire an entire town about their walls as old members retired and chose to stay nearby and raise families. Hawksnest, the Sunhawks’ wintering quarters, supported a thriving population of noncombatants.

A token force stayed behind even during fighting season, to train new recruits, and see to the upkeep of the place. Those were usually members of the Company that were no longer fit for field duty, but couldn’t or wouldn’t retire. If the Captain judged them fit enough, and if there were positions open, they could become caretakers and trainers, especially if they’d been officers. There was no sense in wasting resources.

Evidently word of her defection hadn’t preceded her, for the guard at the front entrance to the stockade, a taciturn one-eyed fellow she knew only vaguely, welcomed her in through the gates with no comments, opening the smaller, side gate for her rather than forcing the great gates open against the piled-up snow. She was mortally glad he was the one on duty; he seldom spoke more than three words in a row, and then only if spoken to first. She didn’t want to have to answer questions, and she most especially didn’t want to have to lie. She feigned a weariness only a little greater than she felt; she knew she and the mare were thin and worn, and those things evidently were all the excuse she needed for silence.

The snow-covered training-ground was silent and looked curiously unused as she rode past; she thought perhaps all the new recruits were eating dinner, but when she dismounted and brought the mare into the darkened, redolent stables, and saw how few horses there were there, she realized that, for the first time in her knowledge, there were no new recruits.

Evidently, since the Skybolts weren’t going to be there to train them, the riders recruited and rough-trained during the summer months had been sent down south to join the rest of the Company.

Which meant that in order to take any kind of job in the normal fighting season, what was left of the Company would have to accept green recruits or free-lancers who’d never been with a Company before, and put them right into the front lines with the rest.

That was just more evidence of the kind of shortsighted thinking Ardana had been displaying all along. While it was true that the Skybolts had only accepted seasoned fighters, without proper drilling and practice, new recruits were twice as likely to die as old hands. And that was in a nonspecialist Company; in a Company of skirmishers, Kero wouldn’t have given a new recruit a rat’s chance of surviving the first fight.

But that certainly explained where all the new faces had come from while she’d been across the Karsite border. And it would give Ardana a fine excuse for why the casualty figures were so high if the Guild made inquiries.

She left Hellsbane under saddle; just backed her into the nearest empty stall and gave her a good feed, then went off to the empty barracks to retrieve her gear.

There wasn’t much of it, but there were warm winter clothes to replace her threadbare garments, some weaponry to replace things lost or left behind. And as for the personal gear, every little bit would help. She’d undoubtedly have to sell the semiprecious gems she’d stored to carve into little figurines this winter. The carving equipment itself wasn’t worth much, and didn’t take up a great deal of room; she’d keep it a while, on the chance that she would one day be able to carve again.

The barracks were dark, with most of the windows shuttered. Her footsteps echoed hollowly and her breath showed white in the gloom, telling her that the place hadn’t been heated at all this winter.

Somehow the very emptiness oppressed her more than the entire trip back. Maybe it had something to do with actually seeing the place that should have been full of people standing deserted.

She didn’t bother with pulling off her worn gloves or cloak; it was too cold. She had no intention of sleeping here; if she found herself with enough breathing space, she’d draw on the little credit she had at the Woolly Ram and spend the night there. She felt her way across the building and climbed the creaking stairs to the veterans’ floor, and sought her own little niche in the barracks.

Cold penetrated her cloak, and depression weighed heavily on her shoulders. She threw open the shutter to get the last of the light. Beside her bare bunk was her armor-stand with her spare suit of chain, which could be sold easily enough. At the foot of the bunk was the locked chest where she kept the smaller objects she didn’t want to carry with her on campaign, and under the bunk was the clothespress that held the rest of her wardrobe.

Winter clothing, all of it, and she bundled it all up and bound it into a pack with a spare blanket. She unlocked the chest and looted it just as thoroughly, though there was considerably less in it. Knives, her jewel-carving supplies, a couple of pieces she’d finished, various odds and ends. Some were too bulky to take with her; some impractical. It was only after she’d made it all up into packs that she saw the letter lying on the shelf above her bed, with the odd bits and carvings she’d picked up over the years, the sentimental things she could not take with her.

Who would send me a letter? My brother? But the seal was unfamiliar, and the handwriting on the outside none she’d seen before. She picked the folded parchment up, her hands trembling for no reason that she could think of, and opened it, breaking the strange blue-and-silver seal.

It contained two pieces of paper. The first was a simple note of two lines and a name.

:I kept the letter of our agreement, but you can’t fault me for arranging the terms to suit myself,” it read. “If you want to redeem this, you’ll have to come here, and you’ll have to see me.

And it was signed, simply, “Eldan.”

The other paper was a draft, in Valdemaran scrip, for the amount of the Herald’s ransom. She would have to go to Valdemar in person to cash it in.

More specifically, she would have to go to the capital of Haven, as the draft had been written on a Crown account there. And it had to be countersigned by the issuer, which in this case was Eldan himself.

To claim her reward, she would have to confront him on his own ground, and deal with him and all her tangled feelings about him.

It was a bitter sort of salvation he offered. If she went to him, to Valdemar, her troubles would be over, temporarily at least. She would have ready cash to tide her over until she managed to land a free-lance position. She might even be able to get a position within Valdemar. Surely they needed bodyguards, personal guards, and caravan guards even there.

But if she went, Eldan would undoubtedly try to persuade her to stay with him, perhaps even teaching at that Collegium of his as he had suggested. And right now she had no better prospects than to give in to that persuasion. But if she did give in, she’d be right back in the situation she had fled from in the first place, first from Lordan’s keeping, then from his. The idea of being completely dependent on someone else made her feel as if she was being stifled. If she did that, she wouldn’t have proved anything, not even to herself.

But she’d be with the one man she’d ever been able to love, to give herself completely to, heart and mind and soul—because he had given himself to her in the same way.

She stood there, staring at the blank wall above the shelf, unaware that she had crushed both papers in her hand until a clamor from beyond the gates of the stockade woke her out of her trance.

There was no mistaking that kind of noise; friendly shouts, whinnies, someone pounding on the gate. All the sounds indicating a crowd of riders wanted entrance.

She stuffed the papers into her belt-pouch hastily. She could decide what to do about them later. Right now she needed to get out of there and quickly. Ardana’s messengers must have been right behind me, she thought, shutting out panic. I have to get to the Guild before they throw me in detention!

She had no doubt that Ardana would court-martial her if the Captain ever got her hands on her. If Ardana had her way, Kero would never even see a Guild Arbitrator.

She grabbed up her packs and bolted down the stairs just as she heard, from the open window behind her, the sound of the great gates being forced open, groaning against the load of snow pressed up against them.

She thought about her possible exits as she ran down the stairs and out the side door of the barracks. There was a back postern-gate that self-locked right behind the barracks. Kero waited for a moment until she was certain that no one was in a position to see her, then dashed across the open space between the buildings into the stables. She fumbled open the stall door and grabbed Hells-bane’s reins to lead her out. Now she heard people and horses milling around just inside the gates; at least twenty if not more. It would take them a few more moments to get organized, then they would have to explain their mission to the guard and the guard would have to remember what direction she’d taken.

That would all take time, precious time, time she could use to make her escape.

She threw the packs over Hellsbane’s rump without fastening them, and led Hellsbane in back of the stables, past the odorous manure pile, to the back of the stockade itself. There was the postern gate; narrow, scarcely tall enough for a led horse, not tall enough for a rider, and a real test of a rider’s ability to get his horse to pass through something the animal judged to be too small.

But the mare would follow wherever Kero led; such was her training and breeding, and the trust they had built together. Kero had to pull the packs off and pitch them into drifts beside the gate to get her through, but the mare gave no trouble with squeezing through the gate, even though the saddle scraped on the stockade walls on either side of her.

The counter-weighted gate swung shut behind her horse’s tail, and the lock clicked. Hellsbane flicked her ears at the sound and whickered nervously.

Kero pulled the packs out of the snow and swung them back up behind the saddle, fastening them as best she could to the lean packs that were already there.

She mounted as soon as the packs were in place; every heartbeat counted at this point. I had no idea they were so close behind me, she thought worriedly. I know we didn’t make the best time, because we had to keep backtracking to avoid the towns—and I know Hellsbane wasn’t in the best shape, either, but I thought we were farther ahead of them than that.

There was another possibility as well. If Ardana had wanted her badly enough to mount up the freshest horses and the best riders in the Company to go after her, with enough money to permit them to change horses at every posting-house, they could have caught up with her quite easily. And that made getting to a town with a strong representation of the Mercenary’s Guild all the more important.

Even if it meant riding all night.

It had meant more than riding all night, it had meant riding past dawn. Kero had never known a person could be so tired, so deep-down exhausted, and still be standing. She stifled a yawn as she recited her story for the third time before the representatives of the Guild.

Each time, she had faced a different set of people. The first time was right after she’d come through the city gates. She wanted bed and food, but with Ardana’s flunkies out there looking for her, she knew she didn’t dare stop for either.

She’d breathed a whole lot easier after she passed the door of the Guild, a sturdy stone edifice that didn’t look a great deal different from the Guildhall of any other Guild. Once inside, she asked for directions to the Arbitrators. She had been sent up a flight of worn wooden stairs to a tiny office, where she’d told a shortened version to a stone-faced secretary of some kind.

He gave her a chair when she’d finished, and went off somewhere. When he came back, his stonelike demeanor had thawed a little, and he took her to another office. That was where she had told the story a second time, to a much friendlier and sympathetic official—one who seemed to strive to make her feel comfortable, and to convince her that she could trust him. She did—but mostly because she was convinced she was in the right, and she was only trying to protect herself and her standing within the Guild. She could see how someone with a falsified tale could easily get himself in deep trouble with this man; he had asked many careful questions, all designed to make her incriminate herself or uncover flaws in her story that would reveal it to be a fabrication.

That had taken the better part of the morning, and she was dizzy with fatigue when he was finished with her. She didn’t try to touch his thoughts, but she had a very real sense that everything he said was part of a carefully prepared script, and that he wasn’t about to deviate from it except in the most extreme circumstances.

She couldn’t help but wonder how many cases the Arbitrators saw that never got beyond this man. Probably quite a few, judging by his reactions to her. Although he didn’t actually say anything that (probably) fell outside his prepared speeches, she got the distinct impression that he was warming to her—outside of the “hail-fellow-well-met” facade he presented.

Once again she was sent off to wait, this time in a little room with three other people, all as silent as she, and two of them looking considerably more harried. The third was black and blue, with splints on one arm. She got the feeling that this man was desperate, under the fog of his pain-killers. If the Arbitrators denied him his perceived justice, he might well do something, something excessive.

He was the first called, and she didn’t see him again. Evidently, petitioners did not leave by the same door they came in, because the other petitioner was called a few moments later, and when Kero was summoned into the room, there was no sign of either of them.

She found herself in a large, well-lit, barren room, empty of everything except a long table with three chairs behind it. In those chairs sat the Arbitrators, two men and a woman, all three of them the very image of the perfect soldier. All three sat as erect as if this was a parade ground, all three wore identical long-sleeved tunics of brown leather, and all three wore their graying hair close-cropped.

This third and final time she recited her entire story to the panel of three Guild Arbitrators, who all remained as impassive and unemotional as statues. She thought that was probably a good sign. This town of Selina was completely outside Ardana’s immediate reach, and had a strong town council of its own. And the administrative branch of the Guild here was well known for fair play. Their completely impartial attitudes let her know they would be weighing not only everything she said, but how she said it.

By now she was exhausted, and she greatly envied Hellsbane, safely and warmly installed in the Guild stables, fed and groomed and probably now asleep.

She tried to tell things simply and clearly, with as little emotional weight as possible; tried to act as impassive and neutral as her judges seemed to be. But she heard herself slurring words as if she was drunk; and so she was, but with weariness, not wine.

It wasn’t hard to sound impassive after all. As she did her best to make sure she kept all her facts straight, she discovered that right at this moment she didn’t care much about anything; all she was really aware of was her acute need to sleep and the hollow emptiness of her stomach. Too late, she thought perhaps that her approach was all wrong; maybe she should have been passionate and full of righteous anger—maybe she wasn’t convincing them. Maybe they read her stoicism as the facade of someone who was making everything up.

But it was too late to change now, and besides, she was too tired. It was all she could do to keep her narrative clear, and answer their questions with some semblance of intelligence.

Finally she came to the end of her story, and the Arbitrators came to the end of their questions.

They sent her out through a second door on the opposite side of the room, where she found a small chamber identical to the one she’d waited in before her “audience.”

It was a tiny, windowless box of a room, stuffy, and airless. There were three chairs, all empty, all equally uncomfortable, which was just as well. She wouldn’t have been able to resist the implied comfort of a padded chair, and once settled into something like that, she’d have fallen asleep for certain.

She took her seat to await their decision in the middle of the three chairs, a high-backed, unyielding piece, so tired that only the deep ache of hunger kept her awake.

That, and the fact that her imagination began to run wild. Being alone like this, with nothing to think about except her performance and possible fate, only made her worry more.

What if they don’t believe a word I said? What if they think I’m lying? There had been no way to tell what they were thinking while she was talking; if they hadn’t been breathing occasionally, she would nave taken them for corpses. But what possible motive could I have for lying? Ambition? I was promoted under Ardana. Revenge? She never did anything to me directly. But that might not make any difference. People had mutinied against their leaders with no apparent reason before this. She worried the fear until the edges were frayed, but she couldn’t dismiss it. It seemed to be taking forever for the Arbitrators to make their decision.

She got up and paced the floor, hands clasped tightly behind her back, trying to walk softly, but unable to keep her boots quiet against the hard wooden floor. What if Ardana’s flunkies went here first, instead of the winter quarters? What if they told Ardana’s version, and the Arbitrators believe her?

It was possible. If they had changed horses, and gone by the trade roads, they could have beaten her here easily. But she can’t argue away the casualty rate. She can’t argue away her lack of strategy.

There were plenty of excuses Ardana could make for those things, though, and Kero’s imagination was quick to supply them. Illness, inexperience, treachery on the part of their allies, unfamiliar territory, a chain of command fundamentally new to their positions....

She had managed to work herself up to such a pitch that when the door opened behind her, she jumped and uttered a muffled (and undignified) squeak of alarm. She was so rattled that she turned and just stood there staring at the newcomer, heart pounding, unable to speak for a moment.

Standing framed in the doorway was her second questioner, the friendly middle-aged man who had cross-examined her so skillfully. He stared at her for a moment, obviously taken aback by her nervous response to the simple act of a door opening behind her.

“I—I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I’m kind of—jumpy. I’m letting my nerves get the better of me.” He recovered his aplomb, and smiled, and this time she had the feeling it was a genuine smile and not the facade he’d worn for her the first time they’d met. “I’m the one who should apologize,” he said. “I knew very well what you’d been through, and I didn’t make allowances for it. I’m lucky all you did was jump—with that poor fellow whose case was heard first, I might have found myself on the floor with a knife at my throat.”

She smiled wanly, and he waved her through the door. “The Arbitrators have decided in your favor, Kerowyn,” he continued, tugging his leather tunic straight with a gesture that seemed to be habit. “But they want you to hear it from them. Even though this is a decision for you, it may not be everything you were hoping for.”

All of the tension drained out of her, leaving her limp and ready to accept just about anything. She obeyed his direction, and found herself back in front of the table, facing the three granite-faced Arbitrators.

Now that she knew they’d decided for her, she looked at them a little more closely. All three of them were older than she’d first thought; old enough to be grandparents, though she had no doubt that any of the three could challenge her at their chosen forms of combat and quite probably beat her. They all had that indefinable air of the professional mercenary; cool, calm, unruffled, and quite able to take on whatever needs doing.

Two men, and one woman; all three had probably worked themselves up from the ranks. She smiled a little to herself. If they had come up from the ranks, they weren’t going to appreciate what the Skybolts’ Captain had done to her people. Ardana was going to get short shrift from them, if she hadn’t already.

The woman spoke; she had the seat on Kero’s left, and looked a little older than the other two. “We’ve decided in your favor, Kerowyn,” she said, her voice surprisingly soft and melodic. “We agree that you had every right and every reason to sever your contract, and that you did so legally.”

That was all she had ever wanted to hear. “Thank you—” she started to say, but the woman interrupted her with an upraised hand.

“Your Captain was and is a fool,” she said, “but there’s nothing in the Guild Code preventing fools from being in command, or from getting their people hurt or killed. We aren’t in the business of telling Captains how to command; we only deal with violations of the Code. The Guild allows only one kind of retribution for Captains of her sort—the kind you took. Severing contracts neatly and legally until she is in command of nothing. Do you understand me?”

Kero put a lock on her reaction of disappointment and nodded. “What you’re saying is pretty much what I’d expected,” she replied, trying not to think of those friends still trapped under Ardana’s command until the end of the Company contract. Only then could they sever their relations with her.

Of course, they would have one advantage over Kero. There would be no record of insubordination in their files.

The woman smiled ever so slightly; the barest hint of a curve to her weathered lips. “Unfortunately, no matter what we put in your record, it is unlikely that any bonded Company will ever accept you again. I hope you realized that, if not when you severed, at least when you’d had a chance to think all this out. Mercenaries who sever contracts in the field, even under extreme provocation such as you experienced, tend to be viewed with a jaundiced eye by other commanders. After all, by their way of thinking, if you do it once, what’s to stop you from doing it again? To them, it’s just another form of desertion under fire.”

Well, that was what I thought, although I’d rather she hadn’t said it. Kero sighed. “I understand that, sir,” she said, rocking a little back and forth to ease her aching feet.

“But I wonder if you really know what that means in terms of the immediate present,” the woman persisted. “This is the lean season. The only places hiring right now are Companies. I understand that you have very little in the way of savings. You are going to find it all but impossible to find work here in Selina, and you won’t have the wherewithal to go elsewhere.”

Kero blinked. “But—what about going bonded freelance?” she asked, wondering what on earth she was missing. “I thought bonded freelancers were always in demand. All anyone is going to check is whether or not I am bonded—”

“If you can find work,” the woman told her. “You have no experience outside of a Company. This is winter. No caravans, no warfare, no hunting where someone might need a tracker who is also a fighter, no work as a city guard and damned near no bodyguard work. Nothing’s moving. No one is going anywhere. I can promise you that there is no work in Selina for someone of your talents.”

Kero swallowed. I never had any idea it was going to be this bad. But groveling isn’t going to help. I have to put a good face on this. Falling apart is not going to earn me anything, certainly not their respect. I think I have that now. I don’t want to lose it.

She stiffened her back and raised her chin. “I’ll have to manage,” she replied. “I have other skills. I can handle horses, or train them, no matter how difficult they are. I can work a tavern if I have to. I even have some experience with medicine. Tarma—my teacher told me to learn other things, because I might have to fall back on them.”

The other two nodded, although the woman looked dubious. “Even if you get free-lance work, you’ve never worked anywhere except within a Company,” she persisted. “You have no idea what it’s like to work freelance. It’s hard enough for a man, but for a woman—”

“I’ll manage,” Kero replied. “I’m tougher than I look. Thank you for your judgment in my favor. I had heard that the Guild was fair, and I will be very happy to confirm that.”

The woman shook her head, but said nothing more. Kero bowed slightly, and turned. The friendly man was still standing beside the second door; he beckoned a little, and she followed him out of it.

“You’re entitled to three days here in the Guildhall,” he told her. “Three days, bed and board, for you and your beast.”

She sighed. That was one worry out of the way. Three days of grace, three days where she wouldn’t have to fret about where she was going to lay her head. “I’ll take you up on that,” she told him. “Because right now I couldn’t find my way to an inn, even if I could afford to pay for it.”

“I thought as much,” he replied, with real, unfeigned sympathy. “I took the liberty of having your things taken to one of the rooms. The food is nothing to boast about, and the room isn’t fancy, but it’s safe, and it has a bed.” “And right now, that’s all I need,” she said wearily. “I’ll work on solutions for my problems when I’ve got a mind to work with. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I can’t believe that someone with my skills can’t find work.”

After a day and a night of solid slumber, and half a day of hunting, she came to the conclusion that the woman Arbitrator was right. There was no work in Selina for a merc of any kind, much less a female.

That left other options. First, before the day was over, she sold everything she didn’t actually need; that left her with one suit of armor, her weapons, her clothing, and Hellsbane and her tack.

The Guild gave her a decent price for the armor and weaponry—decent by the standards of a town in midwinter, at any rate. Decent, considering that her second-best suit of chain was now her best, and the suit she was willing to sell had been immersed in a river, drenched with rain, covered with mud, and generally abused.

What she wound up with would pay for room and board for her and Hellsbane for a fortnight.

She counted the pitiful little pile of coins carefully, but they didn’t multiply, and the numbers didn’t change.

She started to put them back in her belt-pouch, and her hand encountered something that crackled. She pulled it out, puzzled for a moment, then felt the blood drain from her face as she recognized Eldan’s letter and voucher.

It would be the easy answer. Her fortnight’s worth of coin, if augmented by living off the land, would take her to Valdemar.

I don’t have to do anything, she thought reluctantly. All I have to do is go. I can just collect my money, and leave. I don’t have to listen to anything he says.

She was lying to herself, and she knew it. She shoved the parchment back into the pouch and dropped the coins on top of them with a little groan. She lay back on the bed and rubbed her aching temples. I’ll go up there, and he’ll tell me how much he loves me, and he’ll offer me some sinecure—and I’ll take it, I know I will. Then I’ll be trapped. Because it’ll be his job, and probably it’ll be no more than a token, a pretense-job, to make me feel less like he’s giving me everything. And gods, I do love him, it’d be so easy to accept that....

But love wasn’t enough, not for her. She had to have freedom, too. She had to know that she was earning her way, not just playing someone else’s shadow.

No. She gritted her teeth stubbornly. No. Not unless there’s no choice. I’ll go to the Plains, first, and become a nomad like my crazy cousins. And I haven’t exhausted all my options. I still have two more days.

As it happened, it wasn’t until sunset of her third grace-day that she found work. It wasn’t what she had expected; she was looking for work as a groom. She’d tried all the places mercs frequented, then the places that were the haunts of the city guard, and finally started trying tradesmen’s inns. No one had a place for her, not even after she demonstrated her ability with a couple of surly, troublemaking beasts.

One of the last places on her mental list was a peddler’s inn; a cheap place mostly used by traveling peddlers and minor traders. It wasn’t a place where she would have worked if she’d had a choice; but the fact was, she didn’t have a choice. She walked into the stable yard and right into a fight.

The conflict was complicated by the involuntary involvement of a donkey and a pony, both kicking and protesting at the tops of their lungs.

Kero was tempted to wade straight in, but years of tavern brawling had taught her not to get involved in an ongoing fight without reinforcements. There were an assortment of servants and stablehands gawking at the fracas. She grabbed them all and formed them into an assault force, which she led into the fray.

When the pony and donkey were on opposite sides of the yard, several heads had been knocked together, and calm had been restored, she turned to what she thought was the head groom who now sported an impressive black eye.

“I need work,” she said shortly. “I’m a bonded freelance merc, but I’m willing to do just about anything. Especially if it has something to do with horses. Think your master could find a place in the stables for me?”

The man squinted against the light of the setting sun, holding a handful of snow against his eye. “There’s nothin’ open in the stables,” he said with what sounded like mixed admiration and regret. She turned to go, without waiting to hear what else he would say, the bitter taste of disappointment in her mouth once again.

“Wait!” she heard behind her. She almost hurried her steps, not wanting to listen to another offer of a meal, or worse, an offer that she whore for the owner. But this time something stopped her. Perhaps it had been the honest admiration in the man’s voice; perhaps it was her own desperation. She stopped, and slowly turned.

“We don’ need anyone in th’ stables,” the man said, limping toward her. “But we sure’s fire need a hand like you i’ th’ taproom.”

“I don’t whore,” she said shortly, knowing that this inn’s serving-girls were expected to do just that.

“Whore?” the man seemed genuinely surprised. “Hellfires, no! Ye’d be wasted as a whore! Need i’ th’ taproom’s fer a peacekeeper.”

“A what?” She raised both eyebrows, trying not to laugh.

“Peacekeeper. Break up fights, throw them as makes too much trouble out on th’ ear.” The man seemed earnest enough, and Kero kept a straight face. “Ye unner-stand, men won’ reckon on pickin’ fights wi’ a wench, see? Big hulkin’ brute, they kick up dust just t’ challenge ‘im. Wench, they don’ see as worth makin’ trouble with. Then, trouble does start, they won’ be lookin’ t’ a wench t’ stop it. See?”

Oddly enough, Kero could see the sense of it. “How did you figure this out?” she asked.

The man sighed. “Had a wench’s peacekeeper fer years. Lost ‘er t’ th’ Wolflings. That’s ‘cause all we c’n give is room’n’board. Been hopin’ t’ replace ‘er, but ain’t seen nobody I’d trust, much less a bonded, that’d work fer that.”

Kero was still skeptical, but her time was running out, and she needed somewhere to go. This was the only decent offer she’d had. “And how do I know your master will go along with this?” she asked.

The man grinned. “ ‘Cause th’ master’s me. An’ ye’re hired, ‘f ye’ll take just room’n’board. Startin’ t’night.”

It was better than she’d feared, but no place to rest or recover. Hellsbane had to winter in the corral since the stable was reserved for paying customers. She had to sleep on the floor with the rest of the help—with the exception of the serving girls, who spent the nights with customers. The floor was packed dirt, and cold, and half-healed wounds ached at night. She could understand his reasoning—he only had three sleeping rooms upstairs. But that didn’t make her position any easier.

The food was fresh and filling, and she could eat all she could hold, but it was poor stuff. Thin soup and coarse bread for the most part. She never felt quite right, and never regained her lost weight even though she was stuffing herself at every meal.

The innmaster, a cheerful little squirrel of a man, was fair and decent to her and backed her on every decision she made. He was all right, but the rest of the staff avoided her, especially after she brained a peddler who caught her out in the stable and tried to rape her.

She lost track of the days; she was exhausted by the time the inn closed, and never seemed to get enough rest. Each day blurred into the next, and she was never able to get up enough energy to go out and hunt down other jobs as she had intended to. Her little store of coins steadily dribbled away as she had to replace clothing that wore out, and repair armor and tack.

Even the sword seemed to have given up on her; she never felt so much as a prod from it anymore.

She leaned up against the bar, carefully positioning herself in the shadows, and surveyed the crowd. There was a larger group than usual here tonight, which had Rudi bouncing with joy, but didn’t exactly make her feel like singing. More people meant more chances of fighting, and more people meant that some of them would likely buy places on the floor. Paying customers got the places nearest the fire, leaving the help to shiver in their blankets. A cold night meant aches in the morning.

Maybe I can talk Rudi out of some something hot to drink, she thought, rubbing one thumb along Need’s grip. Or maybe wine. Then I can at least fall asleep quickly.

Goddess, I’m tired. I wish I could have a bed for just one night. There was a little eddy of raucousness over by the door; she wasn’t sure who or what was causing it, and she decided to keep a sharp eye on it.

The disturbance moved nearer; laughing and cursing in equal amounts marked the trail of one customer as he made his way toward the bar. Finally the cause of the commotion got close enough for Kero to see him, and she grimaced as she realized why no one was willing to take exception to his behavior.

It was a city guardsman, drunk as a lord, and throwing his weight and rank around. No one here wanted to touch him and risk arrest, and he was taking full advantage of the fact.

Her heart sank when she saw him peering around as if he was looking for something, then grin when he finally spotted her.

He shoved a couple of drovers aside, and shouldered a potter out of his place next to her. “Well-a-day,” he said nastily. “ ‘F it isn’ Rudi’s li’l she-man. Watcha still doin’ here, sweetheart? Ain’ never foun’ a man f take ye outa them britches an’ put ye in a skirt?”

She ignored him.

At first, he didn’t seem to notice that she was staring off into the crowd with a completely bored expression on her face. She’d learned long ago that the worst thing she could do would be to respond at all to bullies like this one. Her only possible defense was to do nothing. Eventually they tended to get bored and go away.

This one was remarkably persistent, though. And he got in one or two shots that came too damn near the bone and made her blood boil. But Tarma hadn’t taught her control in vain; she kept a tight rein on her temper and continued to ignore him, even though a crowd was collecting around them, waiting to see if he could goad her into a fight.

He was drunk, but only enough to make him belligerent, not enough to slow him down or fox his reactions. She’d be a fool to give him the fight he wanted. Twice a fool, since it was against the law to lay a hand on a city guardsman.

So she kept silent, and finally he did seem to get bored with his game. He started to lean close, and she saw what was coming; the old ploy of “accidentally” spilling liquor on someone—her, to be specific. She decided she’d had enough.

Just a heartbeat before the guardsman moved, she reached out and pulled one of the watchers into her place, then slipped into the mob before the guardsman could stop her. Since she was shorter than most of the patrons, it wasn’t hard to keep herself hidden long enough to get into the safe haven of the kitchen.

The kitchen staff stared at her as she passed through and out the rear door, but they didn’t say anything. She waited just inside the kitchen door for a moment, making sure the kitchen yard outside was clear.

There wasn’t so much as a cat moving out there. She closed the door behind her and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. They felt gritty and sore from all the smoke, and she wondered just how long it was going to be before Rudi closed up.

Dear gods, I’m tired. Even though her stomach was full, she felt empty, without any energy. That guardsman—I hope he leaves. I don’t want to have to take him on. I don’t think Rudi could protect me from the town law if I had to hit him. I’m not sure the Guild could, and I’m not sure they’d be willing to, either.

She walked slowly across the uneven kitchen yard, treacherous where snow had melted and refrozen in ruts. The moon was in its last quarter, and cast thin light that did little to help her in seeing her way. Might as well check on the stable. Maybe by the time I get back, that drunk will have gotten tired of looking for me. Or maybe he’ll get so drunk he’ll pass out. Either will do.

There were only two horses in the stable tonight, and both were asleep. One of the stableboys dozed beside the door, but leapt to his feet when she passed him. She patted his shoulder, suppressing a tired smile. “Good lad,” she said calmly and with reassurance, as she would to a dog. “Just checking on things.” He stared at her with wide, half-frightened eyes, and she felt the sting of rejection. She turned away without saying anything more. She knew there were several other animals in the paddock with Hellsbane, but she seldom bothered to check them; the mare herself was more than enough guard. She stopped by the fence, suddenly lonely for any kind of a friendly face, even a horse’s. But Hellsbane was asleep, and Kero decided on reflection not to wake her. What would be the use, after all? The warsteed was only a horse, not an intelligent creature like a Companion. Hellsbane couldn’t talk to her, and probably wouldn’t even know how unhappy her mistress was.

She turned her back on the paddock and began the long walk back to the inn.

Just as she passed the stable, something jumped out of the shadows of the stable door. Her reactions, numbed by weariness and inadequate food, were not what they had been. Before she could turn to meet her attacker, he was on top of her, and hit her in the back with a scab-barded blade.

She saw stars of pain and went down, breath driven out of her. The unknown grabbed her arm before she had a chance to recover, and hauled her to her feet.

She tried to make her arms and legs move, but they wouldn’t obey her. She was hauled around to face her attacker, and he seized a handful of her tunic and pulled her nose-to-nose with him. His ale-sour breath made her cough; and even in the dim light she had no trouble recognizing him or his uniform. It was the guardsman; still drunk, and obviously ale-crazed.

“Thought ye’d slip out on me, she-man?” he snarled. “Couldn’ face a real man? ‘M minded t’ gi’ ye a lesson i’ th’ way a wench should mind ‘erself.”

A hand as massive as the business end of a club holding a sword hilt connected with the side of her face so hard her teeth rattled. That was a mistake, for the blow managed to knock her out of the stunned daze she had been in. She brought up her knee—not into his crotch, which he was expecting, but in order to stamp down hard on his instep.

She was wearing riding boots with a hard heel—they were the only foot-covering she had; he was wearing soft town-shoes. Something cracked under her heel. He screeched, and let go of her.

But only for a moment. He’d taken in so much ale—or possibly other things—that the pain was only temporary. While she was still trying to get her breath and to clear her eyes of the tears of pain, he swung out and bashed her in the side of the head with his still-sheathed blade.

She cried out, and grabbed automatically for the hilt of her own sword as she went down to one knee—

And Need took over.

Even while her mind was still reeling, her body jumped to its feet, unsheathed blade in hands, driving straight for the guardsman. He parried clumsily with his weapon; Need came in over the top of his blade and only by slipping and falling on an ice patch did he escape a heart-thrust. He scrambled back up to his feet (if anything, more enraged than before), while Kero slipped on another bit of ice. The blade’s control faltered for a moment; still half-stunned, she tried to get control of her own body back, as Need reasserted control and forced her to attack again and again while the guardsman scrambled backward. After the second attack, he seemed to have gotten the idea that he was in imminent danger of being killed; now he was only trying to get away from her.

Finally, the guardsman fetched up against the wall of the stable. There were lights and shouts behind Kero now, but she paid no attention to them; she was far too busy trying to get the upper hand before the blade killed the man.

Need caught the man’s blade in a bind and disarmed him. Kero thought for a moment that the sword would release her then, but it held her as tightly as ever. Evidently the man’s crimes against women were such that the blade had no intention of letting him get away. The guardsman’s eyes were wide with fear, reflecting the torchlight behind her, and he flung up both his hands in a futile attempt to ward her off, as Need drove toward his throat.

And at the last moment. Kero got just enough control back to reverse the blade and punch the man in the chin with the pommel.

As he slumped to the ground, and the blade’s control over her vanished, hands seized her from behind.

Kero lay on her stomach on the hard wooden shelf that served as a bed in her damp, unheated cell. It hurt too much to lie on either her back or her side. She hadn’t been treated badly; they’d brought her food and water, earlier, but stabbing pains ran down both legs every time she tried to move, so she ignored both. Her back hurt so much she was afraid that the guardsman might have broken something.

Not that it mattered. Drawing steel on a city guardsman was an offense punishable by a flogging and exile from the city, stripped of all possessions. Which, in her circumstances, was tantamount to a sentence of death. Right now she couldn’t have moved to save herself even with Need in her hand and in full control.

They’d taken the sword away from her, of course, which meant she was without its Healing and pain-blocking powers again. She’d collapsed in agony the moment it had left her hand, but it wasn’t likely anyone had made the connection. Probably they’d assumed she’d been in the same kind of berserk rage as the guardsman. Certainly they wouldn’t have left it with her even if they had known she was injured.

She didn’t expect anyone to speak for her. Most city guardsmen had one or more influential friends. Rudi wouldn’t dare go against anyone who could close down his inn. The Guild had already told her not to expect help if she caused trouble.

And even if he dares to speak for me, he’ll have to fire me. Which will put me right back in the same situation, only inside the city gates. In fact, it probably would take less time for someone to find me and kill me. I don’t think even Need can fix this back in a few moments.

Worst of all, she was more alone than she’d ever been in her life. There was no one in all this city who would be willing to stand by her or take her in—or even offer a friendly word. Her entire “family” was somewhere in the south—assuming that even they still felt kindly toward her, which might be assuming a lot after what she’d done.

At least if they convict me, anyone who tries to take Hellsbane is going to see a lot of hoof, she thought, between the stabs of pain from her back. I hope it’s that bastard who tried to beat me. Serve him right to get his brains bashed in by a mare.

She knew she should be trying to think of a way out of her trap, but she couldn’t muster the energy to think at all, much less to plan a defense. All she could do was try and lie as quietly as possible, and endure the pain of her back and bruised and swollen face.

Slow, hot tears trickled down and pooled under her cheek, as she listened to heavy footsteps passing outside the door of her cell. It sounded like a regular patrol. She had no idea how long she’d been in here, and the win-dowless cell gave no clues either. The fellow with the food and water had come in once—which might mean a day, or only a few hours. The sound of those boots on the stone only made her more acutely aware of her own isolation.

Faced away from the door as she was, her only warning that some of those footsteps were for her was the rattle of the key in her lock. She tensed herself against seizure, and gasped as her back sent rivers of fire down her legs. For a moment she couldn’t think of anything but the pain.

“Guildsman Kerowyn?” said a strange, masculine voice. “Please don’t move.”

Please don’t move? She had expected to be hauled summarily to her feet; the request came as such a surprise that she probably couldn’t have moved if she’d wanted to.

A gentle hand touched her back—awaking agony beside which the previous several hours had simply held common aches. She yelped once, and passed out.

When she came to again, most of the pain was gone, subsided to a dull, but bearable, level. Whoever had touched her back was gone, but she sensed that there was still someone in the cell with her, by the little sounds she heard beside the door. She levered herself up and turned toward the sounds. Another city guardsman stood there, a real giant of a man, a good two heads taller than anyone Kero had ever seen before. Kero gawked up at him, a tiny, idle part of her mind wondering how on earth he ever found uniforms to fit him.

“Guildsman Kerowyn,” the man said, in a surprisingly soft voice, “Several witnesses have come forward to testify that Guardsman Dane provoked you and you took no action in the inn. The stableboy has come forward to testify that the Guardsman struck the first blow. Your Guild has said that you are a sober and reliable professional with no history of troublemaking. Based on all these testimonies, it has been determined that you acted only in your own defense, although we strongly recommend that in the future you choose a weapon other than an unsheathed blade within the city walls.”

She blinked at him, feeling more than usually stupid.

“Because he provoked the fight,” the guardsman continued, “Guardsman Dane has been fined and the proceeds used to pay for a Healer’s services, which you just received.” The giant paused and seemed to be waiting for her to say something, and finally she managed to get her mind and mouth working enough to string a couple of words together.

“So that means what?” she asked.

“Your injuries have been treated. You’re being released,” he explained patiently, and stood aside.

The door behind him was wide open, and she rose shakily to her feet, to stumble out of it.

The guardsman took her arm to help her—she had no doubt that if he wanted to, he could have picked her up like a loaf of bread and carried her off, but he limited his aid to only what was necessary. They stopped at the room at the end of the long, stone corridor, and he took her weapons from the guard stationed inside and gave them to her with his own hands. As she buckled Need back on, she felt a hundred times better. The remaining pain vanished. That Healer had been good—but Need was better.

She was still numb with surprise, though, as the guardsman led her up the stairs to the wooden building above the jail cells and opened the door, for her to walk out. Rudi spoke for me—and the stableboy—and the Guild? Is this more of Need’s magic, or is it something I’ve done? And if it’s me, what on earth did I do to make them speak for me?

But that surprise was nothing to the one waiting for her outside the prison gates.

There was a crowd waiting there; a crowd wearing the silver and gray tabards she used to sport, with a device of crossed lighting-bolts on the sleeve. A crowd that cheered the moment she came stumbling out into the sunlight, squinting against the sudden glare.

“What?” she stuttered. “Wh-what?”

Someone took her arm; she turned at a flash of familiar golden hair. Shallan stood right at her elbow, grinning like a fool.

“You sure do get yourself in messes, don’t you, Captain?” she said.

Several hours later, she finally had a glimmer of the story, but only after putting together all the bits and pieces of it that had been flung at her during the long ride back to the Skybolts’ winter quarters.

And it took a good meal, a sleep from dawn to dawn, and another good meal before she was ready to try to make sense of it all.

She called a half-dozen of her old friends together in the outer room of the Captain’s quarters. That, she still had trouble with. She didn’t feel like a Captain. And no matter how often someone called her that, she kept looking over her shoulder to see who they were talking to.

She ordered hot tea all around from the orderly, feeling very uneasy about doing so, even though the one-armed twenty-year veteran who had served Lerryn seemed equally content to serve her. “Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” she said, as the others nursed their mugs in hands that looked fully as thin as hers. “When I walked, you lot kept Ardana from sending her hounds after me. Then you called a vote?”

“It’s an old law, part of the oldest part of the Code that goes right back to the Oathbreaking ceremony,” Tre said solemnly. “Nobody uses it much, but nobody’s ever revoked it. What it ‘mounts to, is any Company that’s lost more’n half its officers an’ a third of the rest can call the Captaincy to vote from the ranks. Me an’ Shallan, we’d been talkin’ ‘bout that since you’d got hurt. Lot of the rest was thinkin’ it was a good notion, but nobody wanted t’ start it.” He took a sip of his tea, and smiled ruefully. “Not even me.”

“But when you walked like that, an’ Ardana was gonna haul you back in chains for takin’ your rights, well, it made everybody mad.” Shallan ran her hands through her short hair, and scratched at a new scar. “So since we knew everybody’d been told about vote-right, we started hollerin’ for it. Next thing you know, Ardana’s out. Out of Captain, and out of the Company.”

Tre took up the thread again. “So we needed a Captain, and the only person ev’body could agree on was you.”

“Blessed Agnira.” She covered her face with both hands. “This isn’t something I’m ready for—”

But who is? asked a little voice in the back of her mind.

The Guild representative that had come with them spoke for the first time. “Neither Tre nor Kynan are trained in tactics, logistics, and supply the way you are, Kerowyn. Their expertise stops at groups larger than a squad. And neither of them care for mages.”

Which is a definite liability, she though, reluctantly. One thing this Company needs badly is a couple of competent hedge-wizards.

“How do you know I’ll be any better?” she asked, dropping her hands.”

“You can’t be worse,” Shallan replied emphatically.

“You’ve seen for yourself how vulnerable a Company is to bad leadership,” the Guildsman said solemnly. “We think that judging by your past performance, you would step down rather than cause the Company harm.”

She stared at his impassive face; he was cut of the same cloth as the Arbitrators, if a great deal younger. You know I would, she thought at him, as if he could hear her. These are my friends, my family. It would be hell on earth to spend the rest of my life leading them into situations where some of them are going to get killed....

... but it would be worse watching someone well-meaning but incompetent or untrained double those deaths. And worse to ride off on my own, knowing it was going to happen.

I haven’t a choice. They’re my people, and my responsibility.

And in that moment, she suddenly understood Eldan, and the way he felt about his duty and his own people. His “Company” was simply very much larger than hers.

She tightened her jaw, and raised her chin a little. “All right,” she told them all. “You’ve convinced me.”

Shallan let out a whoop, and the others started to congratulate her, but she held up a hand to forestall them. “Let’s first find out if we actually have a Company left.”

She turned to the Company accountant and quartermaster. “Scratcher, how bad is it?”

The man she queried did not much resemble a scholar; he was as lean and hard as any of the rest of the Skybolts, but there was a shrewd mind behind those enigmatic eyes. He chewed the end of his pen, studied the open book before him, and muttered to himself a little. Finally he looked up.

“With all the losses we took in people and supplies, Captain, we’re going to exhaust the bank just replacing them. We aren’t going to have enough to take us out again in the spring. We may not have enough to last the winter.”

The Guild representative stirred a little, and Kero took the chance to read his thoughts.

We could—should—extend them a loan. But I don’t have the authority

She ground her teeth silently. Take a loan that would be years in repayment? And what if we have a bad year, or a bad run of years. What, then? She shifted her weight, and a crackle of parchment in her belt pouch made her frown.

What in—

Then she remembered. Eldan’s ransom. Which she couldn’t get. But the Guild?

She smiled slowly, and pulled it out, leaving the letter within. “Here,” she said, handing it to the Guildsman. “This is from the Herald I pulled out of the fire. I think you can see he’s played fast and loose with the conditions. Think the Guild can do something about that?”

The flat-faced mercenary took the parchment from her, opened it, and his lips pursed in a soundless whistle. “All that for a mere Herald? Are you certain he wasn’t a prince?”

She shrugged. “All I care about is that right now that little piece of paper can make us if we can redeem it.”

The Guildsman scrutinized the writing carefully, then suddenly, unexpectedly, smiled. “It specifies that the holder of the note is the one who has to redeem it in person,” he pointed out. “If you signed it over to us, in return for an immediate sum minus—oh—ten percent, our representative would be the holder.”

He’ll never forgive me. “Done,” she said, reaching for Scratcher’s pen. “Send it half in supplies and weapons. The Guild I trust.”

The rest was over quickly, leaving Kero alone in the wardroom, her hand clenched around the letter still in her otherwise empty pouch. Slowly, she drew it out.

She stared at it for a long moment, her mind tired and blank. Then, she folded it and tore it into precise halves, then quarters, then repeated herself until there was no piece larger than the nail of her little finger.

She stared at the pile of pieces, stirring them a little with her forefinger. A noise from outside made her look up and through the window that gave out on the practice grounds.

Shallan was running a new recruit against the archery-target, at the trot. He jounced painfully and his arrows went everywhere except in the straw dummy. Her own buttocks ached in sympathy.

She looked down at the collection of tiny white scraps, then abruptly swept them into her hand and cast them into the fire.

She stood up, and strode to the door. Her orderly was waiting for her with her cape in his hands, as if her thoughts had summoned him. She paused just long enough for him to flick it over her back and settle it across her shoulders, before striding out onto the practice grounds.

Her practice grounds. Her recruits.

Her mouth opened, and the words came without her even having to think about them, as Shallan saw her and snapped to attention, the recruits following her raggedly.

“So, these are the new ones.” She nodded, as she remembered Lerryn doing. “Very promising, Sergeant. Carry on.”