from PROTECTOR OF THE SMALL: Lady Knight
The palace in Corus, the capital of
In the twenty-first year of the reign of Jonathan IV and Thayet, his
1. Storm Warnings
Though it was a dream, and one that Keladry of Mindelan was quite tired of at
that, it never looked nor felt like a dream. It never contained those changing
bits of people, places, and roles that made dreams so aggravating for Kel. This
dream was always the same. She lay with the comfortable black blanket of sleep
wrapped around and through her. Then, against the blackness, light slid on
movement. The light grew to reveal twelve of the large, vaguely rat- or
insect-like metal creatures known as killing devices, magical structures made of
iron-coated giants' bones, chains, pulleys, dagger hands and toes, and a long,
whip-like tail. The seven-foot-tall devices stood motionless in a half-circle as
the light uncovered what lay at their feet, a pile of freshly dead children.
Once she saw the devices and the bodies, the man who seemed to be the master
of the creations would appear. To Kel he was "the little Nothing Man." He was
almost two feet shorter than the killing devices, long-nosed and narrow-mouthed,
with small, rapidly blinking eyes and dull brown hair. His dark robe was marked
with stains and burns; his hair was unkempt. He always gnawed a fingernail, or
scratched a pimple, or shifted from foot to foot.
Once the picture was complete, Kel woke, as always. She stared at the
shadowed ceiling and cursed the Chamber of the Ordeal. It was the Chamber that
had shown her these images in the first place.
They weren't part of her Ordeal of Knighthood, which had taken place
three-odd months before. For the Ordeal the Chamber had forced her, like every
other squire in the realm's history, to live through her deepest fears in
silence. Kel had expected to relive that in her dreams. Knights often mentioned
waking from nightmares of their Ordeal, even in old age. She could have borne
with that, unpleasant as it was. It was the price a knight paid for a shield. It
would have meant that she had traded the occasional bad night's sleep for proof
that she had earned her knighthood fairly. Everyone knew the Chamber, or the
thing which lived in it, could not be lied to, tricked, or even persuaded to go
easy on someone. In the eyes of most people, once Kel left the Chamber, she was
a true knight of the realm at last, who had measured up to the standard demanded
of Tortall's defenders.
The problem was that Kel had yet to dream of her Ordeal. Instead, three or
four times a week, she saw what the Chamber had shown her once her Ordeal was
complete. First it had hammered her into a damp, sweaty lump with her own
terrors. Then it had said that it had a task for her, and showed her the killing
devices, the Nothing Man, and the dead. It demanded that Kel put a stop to it
It had not said where she might find the man or his workshop. Kel assumed he
would be in Scanra, to the north. Months ago she and others had battled killing
devices all along the Scanran border: the things had accompanied some of the
northerners' raids. But Scanra was a huge country. After three years of raids
and border fights, everyone knew that war with the northern country was near.
Once it came, Kel would be under the crown's orders, forbidden to do anything
but fulfill her vows to defend the realm. Her opportunities to freely search for
a nameless mage in enemy country shrank with each day that passed, and she would
have to search with no more information than a skimpy vision.
"Unless there's a line of killing devices leading from Northwatch Fortress
right up to the Nothing Man's door," she grumbled, easing herself out from under
her covers. Other people threw off their blankets when they got out of bed; Kel
never did. With a number of sparrows and her dog sharing her bed, she'd always
feared she might smother a friend if she hurried. Even moving slowly she heard a
few muffled cheeps of protest. "Sorry," she told her companions, and set her
feet on the cold flagstones of her floor.
She made her way across her dark room and opened the shutters on one of her
windows. Before her lay a courtyard and a stable where the men of the King's Own
kept their horses. The torches that lit the courtyard were nearly out. The
pearly radiance that came to the eastern sky in the hour before dawn lay over
snow, stable, and the edges of the palace wall beyond.
The scant light revealed her as a big girl of eighteen, broad- shouldered and
solid-waisted, with mouse-brown hair cut short around her earlobes and across
her forehead. Her dreamer's hazel eyes, set between long, curling lashes, warred
with the many fine scars on her hands and the muscles that flexed and bunched
under her nightshirt. Her nose was still unbroken and delicate after eight years
of palace combat training, her mouth full and quicker to smile than frown.
Determination filled every inch of her skin inside and out, her character
visible to anyone who looked for it.
Movement in the shadows at the base of the courtyard wall caught her eye. Kel
gasped as a winged creature waddled out into the open courtyard, as ungainly on
its feet as any vulture. The dim light from the sky and the flicker of torches
caught and sparked along the edges of metal feathers on wings and legs, each
feather separate, each ridged and spined like real feathers. Steel legs, as
flexible and limber as fleshy ones, ended in steel-clawed feet. Between the
metal wings and above the metal legs and feet was human flesh, naked, hairless,
grimy, and in this case male.
The Stormwing looked at Kel and grinned, baring sharp steel teeth. His face
was fleshy and unattractive, marked by a large nose, small eyes, a thin upper
lip and a full lower one. He had the taunting smile of someone born impudent.
"Startle you, did I?" he inquired.
Kel thanked whatever gods were listening that the cold protected her
sensitive nose, banishing most of the Stormwing's foul stench. Stormwings loved
battlefields, where they tore corpses to pieces, urinated on them and smeared
them with dung, then rolled in the resulting mess. The result was an
unmistakable aroma that, in the heat, would make the strongest stomach rebel.
Her teachers in things magical had explained the purpose of Stormwings was to
make people think twice before they chose to fight a battle, knowing what might
happen to the dead when Stormwings arrived. So far they hadn't done much good as
far as Kel could see: people still fought battles and killed each other,
Stormwings or no. Certainly Tortall's Stormwing population was a thriving
This was the first she'd seen on palace grounds, though. Kel glared at him.
"Get out of here, you nasty thing! Shoo!"
"Is that any way to greet a future companion?" demanded the Stormwing,
raising scant brown brows. "You people are getting ready to stage an
entertainment for our benefit up north. You'll be seeing a lot of us this
"Not if I can help it," Kel retorted. Grimly she walked across her dark room,
stubbing her toe on the trunk at the foot of her bed. She cursed and limped over
to the racks where she kept her weapons, finding her bow and a quiver of arrows.
She strung the bow, hopped back to her window, placed the quiver on her window
seat, and put an arrow on the string. Outside the courtyard was empty. The marks
the Stormwing's feet left in the snow ended right under Kel's window.
Scowling, Kel looked up and around. There he was, perched on the peak of the
stable roof like a steel-covered portent of war. Kel raised her bow. She
wouldn't actually kill the creature, just make him go away.
He looked down at her, cackled a laugh, and took to the air, spiraling up and
out of Kel's range. He flipped its tail at her three times in a mockery of a
wave, then sailed away over the palace wall.
"I hate those things," grumbled Kel as she removed the string on her
bow. The thought of her body, or her friends' bodies, providing Stormwings with
entertainment gave her the shudders. And she knew that there was a very good
chance that she might become a Stormwing toy very soon. She didn't need to be a
seer to know, as the Stormwing did, that war was coming to the Scanran
There was no point in going back to sleep now. All she needed was to dream of
Stormwings on top of the Nothing Man. Instead Kel cleaned up, dressed, and took
down the glaive. It was her favorite weapon, a wooden staff five feet in length,
shod in iron, cored with lead, and capped by eighteen inches of curved,
razor-sharp steel. Banishing thoughts of deadly creatures from her mind, she
began the first steps, thrust, lunges, and spins of the most complicated weapons
pattern dance she knew.
Grumbling, her dog Jump crawled out of bed and leaped out of one of the open
windows to empty his bladder. The sparrows, fluffed up and piping their own
complaints, fluttered outside to visit their kinfolk around the palace.
Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak, Kel's former knight-master and present taskmaster, was not in his study when Kel arrived after
breakfast. Another morning conference, she thought, and sat down to work on the
number of wagons that would be required to move the Own's supplies up to the
Scanran border. She was nearly done when Lord Raoul came in, a sheaf of papers
in one ham-sized fist.
"We're in it now," he told Kel, motioning for her to stay where
she was. He was a big man, broad-shouldered and heavily muscled from years of
service with the King's Own. His ruddy face was topped with black curls and lit
with snapping black eyes. Like her, he was dressed for comfort in tunic, shirt,
breeches and boots in varied, not-fussy shades of maroon, brown and cream. He
slammed his bulk into one of the chairs facing the desk where she worked. "You
know, I thank the gods every day that Daine is on our side," he informed Kel.
"If ever we've needed a mage who can get animals to spy and carry messages, it's
Kel nodded. Unlike other generations, hers did not have to wait
for Scanran information until the mountain passes cleared each year. Daine,
known as the Wildmage, shared a magical bond with animals, one that endured even
when she was not with them. For three years her eagles, hawks, owls, and geese
had carried tidings south while the land below slept through winter snows,
allowing Tortall to prepare itself for the latest moves in Scanra.
"Important news, I take it?" Kel asked.
"I'm glad you're sitting down," Raoul said. "The Scanrans have a
Kel shrugged. Rulership in Scanra was always chancy. The lords of
the clans were unruly and proud; few were the dynasties that lasted more than a
generation or two. Apparently this one hadn't even lasted a full generation. She
was surprised that Raoul would be concerned over yet another king on what was
called "the Bloody Throne" by everyone but Scanrans. Far worse than any king who
might grab a crown in that quarrelsome land was the threat had emerged a couple
of years before, one Maggur Rathhausak. He had studied war in realms with real
armies, not raiding bands. As one clan's warlord he had increased his grasp over
other southern clans, a few at a time, thumping Tortallan forces harshly as he
did. It was due to Rathhausak that the Tortallans prepared for war, not to the
ruling council in Hamrkeng or its ineffective king. "So they'll be fighting each
other all summer instead of ...." She let her voice trail off as Raoul shook
his head. "Sir?" she asked, unsure of his meaning.
"Maggur Rathhausak," Raoul told her. "He's brought all the clans
into his grip. This year he's going to have a real army to send against us. A
real army trained for army-style battle, instead of a basketful of raiding
parties. Plus however many of those killing devices he can send along to cut our
people to shreds. The messages from the north report at least fifty of the
things, wrapped up in canvas and waiting for the spell that will make them move
Kel set her quill down carefully, on the square of cloth she used
to wipe its point, then carefully replaced the stopper in her ink bottle with
fingers that trembled. Only when she was certain that her voice would not crack
did she ask, "The council let Maggur take over?"
"They weren't given a choice. Maggur had nine clans under his
banner last summer, remember. I imagine he smuggled them into the capital at
Hamrkeng after the summer fighting and, well, persuaded the clans to make him
king." Raoul tossed his papers on the desk with a sigh. "We knew it was to be
war this summer, but we thought we'd be facing half the warriors in the country,
not all of them. Jonathan's sending messengers out to all the lords of his
council. He wants our army to start north as soon as we can manage it." The big
man grinned, showing a number of teeth. "We'll prepare the warmest reception for
our northern brothers that we can. They'll think they've marched into a hot
oven, by Mithros."
Kel stared blindly at the top paper on the stack Raoul had just
thrown onto the desk. She didn't know enough, that was the problem. She needed
information, and there was only one place she could think of to get it. The
words were out of her mouth before she could stop them: "Sir, has anybody
entered the Chamber of the Ordeal a second time?"
For a moment there was no sound in the room but the crackle of the
fire in the hearth. Raoul looked momentarily frozen. At length he said, "I must
tell the bathhouse barber to clean my ears tomorrow. I could have sworn you just
asked me if anyone has ever returned to the Chamber of the Ordeal. That's not
"I didn't mean to be funny, sir," she replied. Shortly after her
Ordeal and knighthood Raoul had commanded her to address him by his first name,
but "sir" was as close as she could bring herself. She clenched her hands so he
couldn't see they were shaking. "I'm serious. I need to know if you've ever
heard of anyone going back there."
"No," Raoul said firmly. "No one's been mad enough to consider it.
Most folk can tell when once is more than enough. Why in the name of the Great
Mother Goddess are you asking me this?"
Kel swallowed. If he didn't like her question, he really wouldn't
like what she was about to say. "I need to talk to it."
Raoul scrubbed his face with one hand. "You have to talk,"
he repeated. "To the Chamber."
Kel nodded. "Sir, you know me," she reminded him gently. "I
wouldn't ask anything silly, not when you bring such important news. But I have
to know if I can enter the Chamber again. I need to find something out."
"You're right, I do know you," Raoul said glumly. "No, no, you
wouldn't jest at a time like this. I'm afraid you're stuck, though. No one has
been allowed back inside that thing in all history. No one would ever
want to go back. You'll just have to settle for what you got in there."
He held her eyes with his own anxious ones.
Kel wished, more than anything, that she could explain, but she
couldn't. Knights were forbidden to say what had taken place during their
Ordeal. Some knights regarded only mentioning that the Chamber put them on a
mental rack as saying too much. "I didn't mean to worry you, sir," she told him
Raoul scowled at her. "Don't frighten me like that again. I've put
far too much work into you to see you go mad now." He looked around. "Let's
finish those wagon requisitions. I won't be able to get to them this
afternoon--the council will be meeting."
Kel fetched the papers he needed. "There was a Stormwing in the
courtyard this morning," she remarked as she laid them out. "I think he already
knew how bad things would be this summer."
Raoul grunted. "I wouldn't be surprised. They probably smell it.
Now what's this scrawl? I can't read Aiden's writing." They spent the rest of
the morning at work, sorting through the endless details that had to be settled
before the men of the King's Own rode north to battle.
She thought of asking her friends about the Chamber over lunch,
but decided not to in the end. The only person who might know more than Lord
Raoul was Nealan of Queenscove, who was a wonderful and knowledgeable friend,
but much too excitable. Kel was certain that if she mentioned entering the
Chamber a second time to Neal, she'd have to spend a week calming him down. Like
her, Neal was a first-year knight, and like all of them still inclined to twitch
at the very mention of the Chamber.
After lunch Kel saw to her horses, stabled in the building the
Stormwing had turned into his momentary perch. There were hostlers whose job it
was to mind the hundreds of mounts kept at the palace, but Kel preferred to see
to her riding mount, Hoshi, and her warhorse Peachblossom herself. The work was
soothing, and it gave her time to think.
She tended the horses with an audience: her dog Jump. He'd put in
an appearance at Kel's side about mid-morning, clearly recovered from having his
morning's sleep interrupted by Kel and a strange Stormwing.
Jump was not a typical palace dog. Those were either the silky,
combed, small ladies' favorites or the wolf- and boar-hounds prized so highly by
the lords. Jump was a stocky, short-haired dog of medium size, a combat veteran.
His left ear was a tatter. His dense fur was mostly white, raised and dented in
places where it grew over old scars. Black splotches covered most of the pink
skin of his nose, his only whole ear and his rump. His tail was a jaunty
war-banner, broken in two places and healed crookedly. Jump's axe-shaped head
was made for clamping onto an enemy with jaws that would not let go. For sight
he had small, black, triangular eyes that, like those of any animal who'd had a
great deal to do with the Wildmage Daine, were far more intelligent than those
of animals who had never seen her.
"I need more information," Kel murmured to Jump as she mucked out
Hoshi's stall. "And soon, before the king orders us out with the army. I
certainly can't tell the king I can't go. He'll want to know why, and I can't
talk about what happened during my ordeal."
Jump whuffed softly in what sounded like understanding. Probably
it was. He and Kel's sparrows, exposed for years to the Wildmage's influence,
understood a great deal of what was said to them. They often answered as well as
creatures who spoke no human could.
Horses tended, Kel reported to a palace library. There she and the
other knights who were her year-mates, young men who had begun their page
studies when she had, practiced the Scanran tongue. Many Scanrans spoke Common,
used in all the Eastern Lands between the Inland Sea and the Roof of the World,
but the study of Scanran would help those who fought them to read their messages
and interpret private conversations.
Kel spent time after her lessons as best she could, caring for her
weapons and armor, working on her sword and staff skills in one of the practice
courtyards, eating supper with her friends, and finally reading in her room.
When the watch cried the time at the hour after midnight, she closed her book
and left her room with Jump.
The palace halls were deserted; wall torches in iron cressets
burned low. Kel did not see another soul. In normal times the nobility would at
parties; not this year. The coming war dictated all of their hours. Nobles
retired before midnight after evenings spent figuring what goods and labor they
could spare for the coming bloody summer. Even the servants, the last to sleep,
were abed. Walking here was like walking through the palace in a dream, finding
all its people fled. Kel shivered, and grabbed one of the torches from the wall
as she passed the Hall of Crowns.
It was a good idea. No lights burned in the corridor that led to
her destination. The Chapel of the Ordeal was used only at Midwinter, as
would-be knights took their last step to a shield. Three months later, it was
shut and ignored. There was no need to guard it: over the centuries thieves and
anyone else whose motives were questionable were found outside the Chapel door,
reduced to dried flesh and bone by the Chamber's power.
Once a year after she'd become a squire Kel had visited this place
to try her will against that of the Chamber. She knew the Chapel's door was
never locked. She closed it once she and Jump were inside and set the torch in a
cresset near the altar.
Its flickering light danced over furnishings: benches, plain stone
floor, the altar with its gold candlesticks and cloth, and the large gold sun
disk, the symbol of the god Mithros. To the right of the disk was the iron door
to the Chamber of the Ordeal.
For a moment Kel could not make her legs carry her forward. She
had never had a painless experience from the Chamber, even when she just touched
its door. It had made her live through the death of her loved ones, being
crippled and useless, and being forced to stand by as horrors unfolded.
"This is crazy," she told Jump. The dog wagged his tail, creating
a soft thwapping noise that seemed loud in the silent Chapel.
Kel made her body move. It obeyed: she had spent years shaping it
to her will. She stepped up to the iron door. It swung back noiselessly, opening
the way to a small, dark room without windows or furnishings of any kind.
Kel trembled from top to toe, cold to the bone with fear. At last
she walked into the Chamber. The door closed, leaving her in complete
Suddenly she stood on a flat, bare plain, without a tree,
stream, or animal to be seen. It was all bare earth with no grass or stones to
interrupt the boring view.
"What is this place?" she asked aloud. Squires were forbidden
to speak during the Ordeal, but surely this was different. In a very odd way,
this was more like a social visit than an ordeal. "Do you live here?"
It is as close as your human mind can perceive it. The
Chamber's ghost-like voice always sounded in Kel's head, not her ears.
Kel thrust her hands into her pockets. "I don't see why you
haven't done something with it," she informed the Chamber. "No furnishings, no
trees or birds . . . If you're going to bring people here, you ought to make
things look a bit nicer."
A feeling like a sigh whiffled through Kel's skull.
Mortal, what do you want? demanded the Chamber. Its face--the face cut into
the keystone over the inside of the iron door--formed in the tan dirt in front
of her. It was lined and sexless, its lips so thin as to be nearly invisible.
The deep-set eyes glinted yellow at Kel. The task you have been set is
perfectly clear. You will know it when you find it.
Kel shook her head. "That's no good. I must know when and
where. And I'd like another look at the little Nothing Man, if you
Instantly the dirt under her was gone, the pale air of the
plain turned to shadow, as if she dreamed again. She fell like a feather,
lightly, slipping to and fro in the wind. When she landed, she was set on her
feet as gently and tidily as she could ask.
During her Ordeal she had seen the Chamber's idea of her task
as an image against the corner of the gray stone room. Now she was part of the
image, placed in a room like a mix of smithy and mage's workroom. Unlike her
vision and then the dreams that followed it, this place was absolutely and
completely real. Behind her a forge cupped a bed of fiery coal. An anvil and
metal-working tools lay nearby. Along one wall stood open cupboards filled with
dried herbs, crystals, books, tools, glass bottles, and porcelain jars. Between
her and the cupboards was a large stone worktable with gutters on the sides. It
was covered with black stains. To her left was another, smaller, kitchen-style
hearth set into the wall. Its fire had burned out.
Kel inhaled. Scents flooded her nose: lavender, jasmine, and
vervain, damp stone, mold, and under it all, the copper hint of old
There he was, scrawny and fidgeting as he stood beside the
worktable, gnawing a fingernail. Kel shrank back.
It is safe, the Chamber said. He cannot see you.
The Nothing Man was just as she remembered, just as he
appeared in all those dreams since Midwinter. There was nothing new to be
learned from his appearance.
In the shadows to Kel's right metal glinted. She gulped and
backed up as a killing device walked out of the shadows, dragging a child's
body. The devices also looked just as she remembered, from her Ordeal, and from
a bloody day in the previous summer, when she and a squad of men from the King's
Own had managed to kill one. The device was made to give anyone who saw it
nightmares. Its curved black metal "head" swiveled back and forth with only a
thin groove to show where a human neck would be. Long, deep pits served as it
eyes. Its metal visor-lips could pop open to reveal clashing, sharp steel teeth.
The torso and limbs were iron-coated giants' bones, moving with the help of
pulleys, metal rods, and chains. Both sets of limbs, upper and lower, had three
hinged joints and ended in its nimble dagger fingers and toes. Its whiplike
steel tail switched; the spiked ball that capped it flashed in the
The little man flapped an impatient hand. The machine left the
room through a door on Kel's right, towing its pitiful burden.
Moments after it was gone, a big man came in. He was tall
enough to be forced to stoop under the top of the door. His graying blond hair
hung below his shoulders. A close-cropped graying blond beard framed curved,
narrow lips. Brown eyes looked out over a long, straight nose. He wore a
huntsman's buff-colored shirt, a brown leather jerkin and brown leather breeches
stuffed into calf-high books. At his belt hung longsword and dagger. He stopped
before the Nothing Man and hooked his thumbs into his belt.
"We just shipped twenty more to King Maggur. That leaves you
with ten, Master Blayce," he said, his voice a deep baritone. He spoke Scanran.
"Barely enough to make it to spring."
"It'll do, Stenmun," said the little Nothing Man--
Blayce, Kel thought intently. Blayce's voice was a stumbling whine, his
Scanran atrocious. "Maggur knows--"
Suddenly Kel was back in the Chamber's dreary home. She spared
a glance around her--did she now see a tree in the distance?--before she turned
to glare at the face in the pale stone. "Where is he?" she demanded. "Look,
Maggur Rathhausak is king now. He'll march once Scanra thaws out. The king will
be sending the army--that includes me--north as soon as he can. If I go now, I
won't be disobeying the king. We mortals call that treason. You have to tell me
where to look so I can leave before that happens!"
The Chamber said, I cannot.
Kel denied this with a phrase she had learned from
I am not part of your idea of time, the Chamber told her.
Apparently her language had not offended it. You mortals are like fish
swimming in a globe of glass. That globe is your world. You do not see beyond
it. I am all around that globe, everywhere at once. I am in your yesterdays and
tomorrows just as I am in your today, and it all looks the same to me. I only
know you will find yourself in that one's path. When you do, you must stop him.
He perverts life and the living. That must not continue. Its tone changed;
later, Kel would think the thing had been disgruntled. I thought you would
like the warning. Kel dug her hands into her pockets, disgusted. "So you
don't know when I'll see that piece of human waste. The Nothing Man. Blayce. Or
that warrior of his, what's his name? Stenmun."
"And you don't know where they are."
Your ideas of countries and borders are meaningless to me.
"But you thought I'd be happy to know the one who's making the
killing devices, who's murdering children, will come my way. Sometime.
You must right the balance between mortals and the divine, the
balance which is my reason to exist. That creature defies life and death. I
require you to put a stop to it. Your happiness is not my concern.
Kel wanted to scream her frustration, but years of hiding her
emotions at the Yamani court stopped her. Besides, screaming was a spoiled
child's response, never hers. And as a knight at eighteen, she was supposed to
act like an adult, whatever that meant. She tried one last time. "The sooner the
You will meet him, and you will fix this. Now go away. The
iron door swung open.
"Can I at least talk to people about this? That you showed me
this?" she demanded.
If they will believe you. You are not considered to be a seer or a
mage, and your own mages know the name of Blayce already. They just cannot find
or reach him.
Kel responded with another word learned from soldiers and
walked out of the Chamber.
The news of Maggur's coronation sped up the process of gathering
fighters and supplies that had filled the winter hours at the palace. Every
knight who was not already detailed elsewhere was summoned to the throne room
the day after Kel's visit to the Chamber. The monarchs and their advisors told
the knights that they were now in military service to the crown for the length
of the war, and given their instructions. Kel got to stay under Lord Raoul's
orders for the moment. She readied her own gear as she helped him to finish
assembling all his men would require.
Weather mages turned all their attention to the northern
mountains. A week later they told the monarchs that, while it would be hard
going, Tortall's armies could move out. The next day the army prepared its
departure in the guesthouses and fields around the Great Road North, assembling
knights, men of the King's Own, six Groups of the Queen's Riders, ten companies
of soldiers from the regular army, and wagon after wagon of supplies. It would
take them three times as long to reach their border posts as it would if they
had waited an extra two weeks for the sleet, snow and mud of the northern roads
to clear, but they resigned themselves to a long and nasty ride. It would be
worth the trouble they took, if they could be in place when the Scanrans came to
At dawn on the first morning of the last week of March, the army's
vanguard, consisting of knights and lords of the realm, set off on the muddy
road north. Kel, riding Hoshi with Jump in one of her saddlebags and sparrows
clinging to every part of her and her equipment, murmured a soft prayer to
Mithros for victory and to the Goddess for the wounded to come. She was starting
a prayer to Sakuyo, the Yamani god of jokes and tricks, when she heard Lord
Raoul snarl a curse. She looked at him, startled: he was riding just in front of
her with the King's Champion and Neal's father, who was chief of the realm's
healers. Now everyone else was turning in the saddle as Raoul did to see what
could make this easy-going man so angry. When they looked at him, he pointed a
finger that shook with rage.
Their current position was on the bluffs north of the city. Below
them lay Corus, sprawled on both sides of the Olorun River. Across from them on
the high ground to the south of the river lay the royal palace, domes and towers
clear in the growing light of sunrise.
Above those walls and the palace, like a swarm of hornets, flew
Stormwings in the hundreds, males and females, hundreds of them. The sun bounced
off their steel feathers and claws, shooting beams at anyone who looked on.
Higher the Stormwings rose, until they were well clear of the palace. Slowly,
lazily, they wheeled over the capital city, then streamed north, over the army,
as if they pointed the way to battle.
Readings I've given while on tour in 2001 -
She'd been on the road ten days when they stopped in Queensgrace
for the night. The Jug and Fire was the largest of three wayhouses there, which
meant that even first-year knights had rooms to themselves. By the time Kel got
to her room after tending her mounts, a hot bath awaited her. She soaked until
the mud and ice were out of her pores, then dried herself, dressed in clean
clothes, and went down to eat with her friends. Except for the conversation of
the villagers, who had come to see the nobles, the only sounds were the clatter
of cutlery and occasional quiet requests for butter, salt, or a refill of a
Kel finished and thrust her plate back with a grateful sigh. A
bowl of winter fruit sat on the table she shared with Neal and her year-mates,
reminding her of her horses. They deserved a treat after that day's work. She
scooped up two apples and excused herself.
A shortcut through the kitchens meant she was outside for only a
couple of yards rather than the width of the large courtyard. It also meant she
entered the stable unnoticed, through a side door rather than the main
The long building lay in shadow, the lanterns being lit only
around the front entrance. The horses dozed, glad to be under shelter. Kel was
letting her eyes adjust to what light there was when she heard the hard whump!
of leather on flesh, and a child's yell.
"I tol' ye about foolin' around the horses when there's work to be
done," a man snarled. He stood two rows of stalls over from Kel, his back to
her. He raised his right hand; a leather strap dangled from his fist. "You're
supposed to be in that kitchen washin' up, you thankless rat-turd!" Down plunged
the hand; again the sound of the blow as it struck, and a yelp.
Kel strode quickly but silently across the distance between her
and the man. The next time he drew his arm back, she seized it in one
iron-fingered hand, digging her nails deep into the tender flesh between the
bones of his wrist.
"You dare--" the innkeeper snarled, turning to look at her.
He was bigger than Kel, unshaven and slope-shouldered. His muscle came from
hoisting kegs and beating servants, not from more than eight years of combat
training. His eyes roved from Kel's set face to her personal badge: a gray owl
on a blue field for House Mindelan, and Kel's own ornament of crossed glaives
below the owl in cream lined with gold. There were two stripes of color for the
rim, the inner ring cream, the outer blue, the border that meant she was a
distaff, or female, knight.
The innkeeper knew who she was. That information spread quickly
everywhere Kel had been. "This's no business of yours, lady," he said, trying to
yank free of her. "Look, he's allus ditchin' chores, never minds his work.
Likely he's out here to steal. Leave me deal with him."
The boy, who sat huddled in the corner of the empty stall leaped
up and spat at the innkeeper's feet. He then bolted across the aisle and into
the next stall.
"No!" shouted Kel, but it was too late. The boy slipped in manure
and skidded to a halt under Peachblossom's indignant nose. "Peachblossom, leave
him be! Boy, he's mean, get out now!" While the gelding had learned to live near
others like a civilized creature, he could not be approached by just anyone.
Peachblossom lowered his muzzle to sniff the ragged scrap of
humanity before him. The boy waited, perfectly still, as the big gelding
whuffled through his guest's hair and under his arms, then gently lipped the
boy's nose. Kel waited, horrified, for the shriek of agony that would come when
The shriek never came. Peachblossom continued to inspect the
newcomer inch by inch.
"Milady, you oughtn't go between a man an' his servants," the
innkeeper said, trying to be agreeable. "I'll never get him to do proper work
now." He tried to wrest his hand from Kel's grip. She tightened her muscles,
digging even deeper into his wrist. He couldn't shake her loose, and he was
afraid to anger a noble by striking her.
As he struggled, Kel inspected the skinny urchin who had so
bewitched Peachblossom. The shadows around the lad's deep-set blue eyes were not
all from lack of sleep. There was an old black eye, a newer bruise on one
cheekbone, and a scabbed cut across his sloping nose. The boy glared at the
innkeeper, his chin square and determined. There were new welts on his arm and
back, visible through holes in his shirt. A slit in half-rotten breeches
revealed a long, recent bruise. He was barefoot, his feet red and chapped. His
matted hair might be blonde if it were clean.
As she watched, he reached up and gently stroked Peachblossom's
Horse magic, Kel thought. It has to be. And this idiot treats a
lad that useful like a whipping boy. She looked at the innkeeper. Fury boiled in
her veins, but she kept her face calm, allowing no emotion to escape. It was a
skill she had perfected. "Tell me he is not your son," she said mildly.
The innkeeper made a face. "That stray pup? We took him in of
charity, fed and clothed him and gave him a home. He works here. I've the right
to discipline him as I please."
"You would lose that right if he weren't forced to depend on you.
He'd be long gone." Her voice was still mildly pleasant. Her inner self, the
sensible part, leaped up and down shrieking that she had no business doing what
she was about to do. She was on her way to a fight; boys took much more
looking-after than sparrows, dogs, or horses.
"Let him starve? That would be cruel," the man insisted. Kel
realized, looking at him, that he believed it. "He's got no family--where can he
go?" demanded the innkeeper. "But he can't just ditch work. Boys need
discipline. Elsewise he'll go as bad as the feckless Scanran slut that whelped
him an' left him on the midwife's step."
"If he was left with the midwife, how did he come to you?" Kel
"She died. We bid for the boy's indenture--paid for seven years,
we did. Been more trouble than he's worth, but we're gods- fearing folk, an'
charity be a virtue." The man looked piously at the ceiling, then at Kel.
"Forgive my sayin' so, milady, but this be no affair of yours."
Kel released him. "I think the district magistrate would find your
treatment of him to be very much his affair," she informed the man.
"Under the law indentured servants have some rights. What did you pay when you
bid for his services?"
"You can't buy his contract," protested the innkeeper. "It ain't
Kel wrapped both hands in his tunic and dragged his face down to
hers. "Either tell me, or I visit the magistrate tomorrow, and you'll have no
say in the matter," she informed him. "This boy is an indentured servant, not a
slave. Accept my coin now, or have him taken with no payment tomorrow, it's all
the same to me."
When the innkeeper looked away, she released him, knowing she had
"Two copper nobles," growled the man.
"One," said the boy grimly. "Only one, an' I been workin' for 'im
for three year."
"Lying little rat!" snapped the innkeeper, darting to
Peachblossom's stall. The gelding lunged without touching the boy at his feet
and snapped, teeth clicking together just in front of the innkeeper's face. The
man tried to run backward and fell, ashen under his whiskers.
Kel looked in her belt-purse. She wouldn't have paid a copper bit
for ten boys in that condition, but she wanted to rid of the innkeeper. She held
up two copper nobles. "I'll take his indenture papers before you have this. Get
them, right now."
The man fled the stable.
Kel sighed and walked into Peachblossom's stall. "You're getting
slow," she informed the gelding. "Time was you'd have had his whole arm in your
Peachblossom snorted in derision and backed up without touching
"Not that I'd mind," Kel admitted, looking at the lad. "A good
bite would keep him from hitting people with that arm for a while. But I suppose
it would make a fuss." She propped her hands on her hips, disgusted with
herself. Why had she done this?
Even as she asked herself if she'd run mad, she knew that she
couldn't have done anything else. Once she had stood by while someone else was
beaten up. It had haunted her. Since she couldn't walk away when someone was
bullied, there was no sense in kicking herself for it. Still, she had managed to
take on a bit of work.
Kel inspected the boy. Clothes, particularly shoes, were needed.
His present rags would have to be burned. He needed a bath and a haircut. He
probably had lice. Shaving his head and scrubbing him with lice-killing soap
would eliminate that problem. He didn't look old enough to need shaving anywhere
else. And he needed a healer.
Kel looked over at Hoshi's stall, where Jump gnawed a bone.
Chances were that it had not been intended for his supper, since there was quite
a bit of meat on it, but there was little Kel could do about that now. She only
hoped the inn's staff didn't know who the thief was.
"Jump, will you get Neal, please?" Kel asked the dog. Jump thrust
his bone under the straw, then trotted out of the stable. The boy followed the
dog's movements with wide eyes, but made no comment that might draw Kel's
"What's your name?" she asked. "And how old are you?"
The boy scooted further back under Peachblossom's belly. He
watched her warily from between the gelding's forelegs. After a moment he said,
"Tobe, miss. Tobeis Boon. I think I'm nine."
Kel repeated, "Boon?" The boy nodded. "Auld Eulama said I musta
been a boon to someun, though she din't know who."
"Eulama?" asked Kel.
"Midwife as reared me, best's she knowed."
Kel scratched her head. "Whose opinion is that?" she wanted to
know, intrigued by his frank way of talking. "That she did the best she
"All Queensgrace, lady. They all say't. Way they talk, it din't do
me much good." It seemed Tobeis--Tobe--was as intrigued by Kel as she was with
him. He inched forward to sit between Peachblossom's forelegs.
Kel indicated the boy's guardian. "It's not so long ago that I
convinced him not to savage everyone in reach. I've known him eight years. I was
sure he'd kill you."
"Aww, he's a good un." Tobe wrapped a casual hand around as much
of Peachblossom's right foreleg as he could manage. "Ain't nobody likes
Alvik--me master, there."
Here came Alvik himself with a writing board, quill, inkpot, a
sheet of grimy paper, sealing wax, and a candle. Kel briskly signed Tobe's
indenture paper, handed over the coins, and watched the innkeeper also sign,
then seal, the document. As soon as Kel had the completed bill of Tobe's
indenture sale in hand, Alvik fled. He passed Neal and Jump on their way in.
"You know, Mindelan, our lives would be easier if the dog just
broke down and talked," Kel's friend announced. "I was winning that card game."
He glared down at Jump. "There was no need to grab me."
Kel smiled. "If you're not bleeding, he was being nice, and it's
not fair for you to play cards with ordinary folk." To Tobe she explained, "He
remembers all the cards dealt."
Neal looked to see who she spoke to, and stared. "Kel, that
monster has a boy under his belly."
"That monster hasn't touched him," replied Kel. Neal had every
reason to expect the worst of the big gelding. "Will you take a look at the boy?
Tobey--Tobeis Boon, this is my friend, Neal." She didn't give Neal's titles, not
wanting to make the boy uncomfortable. "Tobe, my friend is a healer. I want him
to look at you."
"Not while he's in there," protested Neal.
At the same time the boy said, "He's no healer, just some
Neal glared at Tobe. "I'm a healer and a noble." He looked
at Kel. "What have you done now, Mindelan?"
Kel shrugged. "I need a servant. Tobe seemed to want a change, so
I hired him away from the innkeeper."
"You mean he's another of your strays," Neal pointed out. "Didn't
that griffin teach you anything?"
"Griffin?" Tobe asked, scooting a little forward of Peachblossom's
legs. "You saw a griffin?"
Kel smiled. "I'll tell you about it if you'll let Neal have a look
Tobe eyed Neal with considerable suspicion. "Folk like him don't
touch the likes of me."
"If you knew how I spent my squiredom, you'd know the likes of you
are most of what I ended up touching," Neal informed him. "I can get rid
of your lice and fleas," he added as Tobe scratched himself.
"Cannot," retorted the boy.
"Can too," Neal replied. "The handiest spell I ever learned."
Convinced that Neal would talk the boy around, Kel went to see
about having a hot bath drawn and carried up to her room.
"Miss, you shouldna bother with that un," the maid she paid for
the service commented. "He's a gutter rat, as like to bite a helping hand as
Thinking of Peachblossom and the baby griffin she'd once cared
for, Kel replied, "If he does, it won't be the first time."
At the refugee camp called Haven, several
The next morning Kel returned to her routine: glaive practice with
Tobe and his friends doing spear exercises beside her, breakfast, then archery
practice on the riverbank. Afterward she was about to return to Haven with her
archers when a plowman on his way out of the fort approached her.
"They've got you listed for kitchen clean-up. A big lass like
you's wasted on scrubbing pots," he informed her. "D'ye know how to plow?" Kel
shook her head. "Then it's past time you learned," the man informed her. "That
idyit Edort went and sprained his ankle. Whilst he's getting coddled by Grandma
Nealan we could have more acres done."
Kel met the plowman's eyes. He was a stocky older man, black-
eyed, his hair silvery, his mustache salt and pepper. Like the other refugees he
looked as if he'd seen better days, but there was an imp of spirit in his eyes.
"You do understand I've never plowed in my life, Master--"
"Just Adner, no 'master' in me," he retorted. "And if you keep
that attitude you'll never learn. Carry on, y'ens," he ordered Kel's archers,
using northern slang for "you people." "I'll give 'er back to yez unbroke." He
took Kel by the arm and steered her toward the fields being readied for
"But that's the lady knight!" cried one of Kel's archers, shocked.
"You can't just carry her off!"
"I can unless one of yez will plow in her stead," he called over
his shoulder. Kel waved the archers on. They were bakers, laundresses, and
carpenters, all with their own work to do. It was vital to get as many acres
plowed and seeded as they could, as soon as they could. They needed all the
extra food they could produce.
Trudging along with the men and women who managed plows and
animals with easy familiarity, Kel was glad to see something familiar to
her: bows, quivers of arrows, and staves. Adner bore a crossbow that must
have been his: longbows were easier and cheaper to make in the north, so few
people outside the army used crossbows. She wondered what kind of shot Adner
was. Maybe he would shoot against her some evening when they had the time.
At last they reached the ground beside the acres that were plowed
while she was away. Adner chose an ox for her and showed her how to hitch him to
a plow. "You'll pick it up," he assured Kel, indicating the strip of ground that
was hers. "There's some good dirt here. Toss what rocks y'hit over aside the
river, not onto ground we've yet to plow." He looked Kel over as she gathered
the reins in her hands. "I'm workin' that strip there. I'll keep an eye on
Kel nodded and faced the ox's rump. I ride Peachblossom, she
thought. An ox will be no trouble at all.
The plowing should be easy enough. She'd watched plowmen and women
all her life. All she had to do was flap the reins now and then, keep the plow
moving in a straight line, and turn the thing at the end of the strip.
"Easy as pie," she said, and flapped the reins gently against the
ox's back. "Come on, big fellow," she called, softly, so the others couldn't
hear. "Let's bustle a bit."
The ox didn't wish to bustle. He was more interested in the grass.
Kel flapped the reins harder, then harder still. She thought she heard snickers
from the others, but when she looked at them, they were in motion, calling
encouragement to their own horses or oxen. It took Jump and five sparrows to get
her own beast going. When he did plod forward, it was not in a straight line. He
veered as Kel fought both reins and plow to straighten the ox's course. She
stepped three times in lumps of fresh dung she was sure the ox had left for her
on purpose. At the end of the furrow she wrestled the plow and ox around to
prepare for her second furrow. The evidence of her long, sweaty labor,
emphasized by the ache of back muscles put to new use, was a meandering furrow
that stretched the width of the field.
She looked at the others' results. Their furrows were straight.
They'd plowed more of them, too.
"If they can do it, we can," she said grimly. This time she set
the ox forward by thrusting the plow through the ground toward his rump. The ox
looked around, startled by the sudden slackness in his reins, saw the
approaching threat to his tail, and ambled ahead, away from plow and Kel. Each
time he tried to swerve left, Jump leaped up beside his left eye, startling him
back to a straighter course. If he tried to swerve right, the sparrows fluttered
around his right eye until the ox straightened his course again.
By the time Kel reached the end of her second, meandering, furrow,
she had begun to think longingly of latrine duty. She stopped for a ladleful of
water, envying the way Adner and the others moved steadily across the ground,
making furrows as neat as razor-cuts, turning up rich black earth.
Her fingers twinged as she took up the reins again. Kel looked for
the source and found, to her horror, that she was developing a blister.
A blister! she thought, furious that these reins weren't like
riding ones. As if I were some lily-handed noble, good only for poems and
dancing! She smacked the ox with the reins more firmly than she had before,
rubbing the sore spot on her hand. The ox looked back at her, startled.
Something in the way Kel scowled at him seemed to convince him that she would
accept nothing but motion.
Kel was turning him a third time when sparrows darted out of the
woods thirty yards ahead, cheeping the alarm. In their wake came horn calls:
Merric had sighted the enemy in the woods. The sparrows flew straight at Kel.
All but one dropped to the ground and nibbled grass seeds. The one was a bird
Kel recognized, the male she called Duck because his lack of a tail gave him a
duck- shaped behind. He hovered before her.
"How many?" Kel asked, and stretched her hand out, palm-down. Duck
stooped to tap her hand three times before he lit on the plow. "Fifteen, is it?"
Kel murmured. She listened to horn calls as she trudged back to the spot where
her glaive leaned against the water- cart. Merric had the Scanrans on the run.
He wanted soldiers from Haven to strike the enemy as he drove them toward the
river. Unless he'd lost men, his strength was at eleven, counting his own sword,
against fifteen Scanrans. Haven's soldiers might not reach the field before the
enemy came into sight. She had an opportunity here, if she cared to risk it.
Kel looked at her companions: they were trying to unhitch their
plows. She held up a hand palm-out, the "wait" signal, and walked over to
"Get your bows; prepare to shoot," she called, her voice no louder
than necessary. In the distance she heard the sounds of battle approaching.
"They'll come out of the north woods. Turn side on to them so they won't see
your bows. As soon as you have a clean shot at one, in your range, take
it. Try not to shoot our soldiers. Lord Wyldon won't give me any more."
Adner grinned wolfishly as he stood clear of his plow. His stance
was easy, his crossbow held down along his side. It was already cocked with a
bolt in the notch. Unlike longbows, whose strings went loose if the bow was kept
strung for too long, crossbows could be readied to shoot and set aside until
The other workers, women and men, didn't share his comfortable
readiness. Some fumbled as they strung their bows; one dropped an arrow. Kel
didn't even try to reach her bow nearby. If these people could help Merric's
soldiers without her assistance, it would be a victory everyone in Haven would
celebrate. They knew that she could fight. They didn't seem to know yet that
they could, and must.
She saw movement among the trees. The sound of men's shouts and
the crash of running horses announced the approach of the fight. Out of the
woods burst eight or nine men in Scanran dress: rough reddish tunics and
strapped-on leggings. One of them went down, an arrow in his back. Here came
Merric and his squad, ducking to avoid the last branches of the trees, swords
Once the Scanrans reached the open field, they ran for all they
were worth. The raced straight toward the field where a handful of farmers
waited, apparently too terrified to run for the shelter of the fort.
Wait for it, Kel thought, but did not say. Her farmers had to
decide the timing for themselves. To her left she heard Haven's gate open and
the thud of racing horses. Rescue would arrive in a moment if her people
Adner's muscled arm swung up: he braced his crossbow against his
shoulder. He shot almost as soon as he leveled the weapon, apparently without
stopping to aim. A Scanran went down with a bolt in his throat. Adner bent to
cock and load the crossbow again.
Two farmers' arrows struck one Scanran; a third from Merric's
soldiers brought down another man. A Scanran stumbled and dropped, a civilian
arrow above his knee. A slight, weathered old woman shot the enemy's biggest man
in the chest. He spun with a cry, to be shot by Adner in the back.
Merric's archers killed two more Scanrans; a farmer shot the last.
Merric rode up to Kel, sweeping his helmet from his sweat- soaked, flame-red
hair. "Sorry to interrupt the plowing," he said, ablaze with combat fever. "If
I'd known your lot would do the heavy work, I'd have continued on patrol." He
looked at the farmers and grinned. "Nice to know you can do it without us, eh?"
he asked them.
"Next time leave us a few more," the old woman informed him,
coiling her bowstring. "We need the practice."
From the walls of Haven they heard the sound of cheers.
Reprinted with permission of Random House Publishers, from
by Tamora Pierce. Copyright (c)2002 Tamora Pierce
all site content copyright Tamora Pierce except where noted
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