Two years after the Immortals War, Tortall is slowly moving forward and so are Daine and Numair. When duty sends them the village Daine fled six years ago, she must fight against drowning in her past and hold on to her future.
This fic takes place about two years after the end of RotG. In the story, Daine is 18, and Numair is, I’m guessing, about 32; they have been living together openly for about a year.
See series Main Page for disclaimers and full warnings.
Canon-typical violence; sex; mentions of child abuse; victim blaming and shaming; attempted rape (warned for at the beginning of each chapter)
There are instances of attempted rape in this story, as well as a depiction of the thought process of a violent power assertive rapist. Please read cautiously if this might trigger you.
Also, please be aware that I wrote this story as a teenager. There are lots of little flaws that I’m aware of, but have not spent time editing out. Don’t nitpick, please.
He watched her sleep, stretched out on their bed, fully dressed excepting her boots. He was tired as well, but for now was content to watch her, his guard down now that they were safely in their home. Soon enough he would join her in sleep.
He was tall, with a lanky yet power frame that topped a full six-foot, five-inches, with swarthy skin and long, glossy black hair held in a horsetail at his neck. A number of silver strands had woven their way through his hair for all that he was only a few years past thirty—remnants of a war since past. Thoughtful, intelligent dark eyes stood out amid strong features, which were softened by a tender smile as he watched his love sleep.
Numair Salmalin, black robe mage, the most powerful sorcerer in the Eastern lands and among the greatest in the world, sat, dusty from travel, gazing at his teenage lover and longtime friend and student, Daine. She was relaxed in repose, utterly boneless with true exhaustion, her lovely blue-grey eyes hidden behind long lashes as her chestnut curls spilled over her beautiful—and slightly stubborn—features. She was small, barely five-foot, four-inches, and seemingly delicate, particularly with her bright eyes hidden and stubborn chin relaxed. Her slight build hid a powerful spirit and a strong heart and was, despite appearances, muscled and capable. She could aim and fire with unerring accuracy the bows that many strong men couldn’t even string, and ride like one of the K’mir Horse Lords. And she, young woman of eighteen that she was, with a gift of Wild Magic unlike any the world had seen, was one of the greatest heroes of Tortall.
In the two years since the end of the Immortals War, Tortall and the Eastern lands had seen many changes as immortals settled once more in the mortal realm—and Daine, with her powerful gift and animal bond, stood constantly at the forefront of those changes. They had spent much time helping both immortals and humans cope with each other’s presence, often mediating between mortals and the more peaceful of the immortal races, and hunting those which meant harm. Daine had refined her abilities with her Wild Magic as well as her diplomacy skills—such as they were—even as her body and face had matured and become those, not of a pretty teenager, but a lovely young woman.
And he loved her more every day. It had taken time to reconcile himself with loving someone not only fourteen years younger than himself, but a girl who was still only an adolescent. While his heart was wholly committed, the mind still had qualms—as she had had. But, over the long months after the death of the former Emperor Mage Ozorne, they had accustomed themselves to each other not as friends, but as lovers—even as they were circumspect about revealing their feelings to others. They had reached a milestone a year past when, still wary of marriage, they had flaunted all convention and moved in together. The raised brows and whispers about the Palace had slowly faded as others became used to the situation—aided, at least in part, by the casual resting of hands upon sword hilts by the couples’ friends when the topic of their relationship arose—and he and Daine had slowly adapted to their new circumstances.
Now, while he still had lingering concerns, Numair no longer lived in fear that Daine would one day feel trapped with an old man—and she had lost her own fears that he would someday see her as a child, not a woman. Marriage, the word and idea, had slowly become less daunting and now, two years after first confessing their feelings, they were formally betrothed.
Numair smiled, slowly removing his boots and robe. While they had decided to wait before actually marrying—likely a year or two—they would wed. Daine wanted to be his wife. He was more than content with that.
Stretched out beside his love, he wrapped his arm around her waist, careful of the dragonet beside her, and drew her close as he followed her into sleep.
“I have a request to ask of you both.” Jonathan of Conte, King of Tortall, possessor of the Dominion Jewel, and the oddest ruler the Eastern Lands had seen in living memory—and beyond—spoke to the small assembly in his study.
Daine and Numair, well rested after two days of peace, sat together on a small sofa near the king’s desk. Buriram Tourakom, or Buri as she preferred, a small, sturdily built K’mir with more character than beauty to her features, and the Commander of the Queen’s Riders, sprawled in and armchair beside a matching seat which held the giant known as Sir Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie’s Peak, Commander of the King’s Own. Evin Larse, the handsome, blonde-haired Rider who commanded the 7th Rider Company, sat upright, formally, on a padded bench near the hearth. He, unlike the others in the room, was not used to being the presence of the king.
Behind Jon, leaning on the back of his chair, was Thayet, Queen of Tortall, founder of the Queen’s Riders, and considered among the most beautiful women in the world. Both rulers seemed unusually solemn as they looked at the famous mages. “This is a request—not an order by any means. One of our allies has, as part of a treaty negotiation, requested our aid in defending a part of their kingdom from a large, formidable group of bandits,” Jon explained. “The 7th Rider Company, the 5th Company from the Dunlath region, and a small company of the Own, led by Commanders Buri and Raoul, will go to their aid in fighting this threat, and in demonstration our tactics and methods—but not all of them,” he added with a smile. “Daine, Numair, your help would be valuable, but can be spared. The bandits have been striking a series of villages; more disturbingly, this area is a buffer zone between our ally and their enemy. King Rochar of Galla is concerned about the threat.”
It was at the mention of Galla that Daine realized why the king was not ordering her to do anything, and from the stiffening of his frame, she knew Numair had reached the same conclusion.
Jon nodded as Thayet, worriedly, spoke. “Daine, please don’t feel pressured—you both deserve some rest after the last few months—we can’t,won’t , demand this of—”
The queen froze, and the rest of Daine’s friends looked to her, worried, curious. Numair took her hand, squeezing, and spoke gently. “Daine, you needn’t do this.”
She looked up into is beloved, concerned face. Even as her stomach tightened in protest and memories fought to surface, she smiled at him. “Yes, I do. Hear me out,” she went on before he could protest. “No matter what I’ve done, what I’ve become, some small part of me still believes I am what the folk of Snowsdale thought me—the bastard daughter of a hedgewitch, without even the Gift to redeem her, who went mad.” She saw the anger on his face, heard the murmured protests from Buri and Thayet—and was grateful for such friends. “For thirteen years all I heard was that I was Sarra’s bastard: less than anyone else in the village, that nothing good could come of me, that no respectable man would have me—not that you’re particularly respectable,” she added with a smile.
“Thank the gods.”
Her smile faded. “After—after the bandits, I was hunted by them, like an animal. Anyone else, even one who went mad, they might have tried to help. But me, with no family left, when I ‘went mad’, they tried to put me down. That piece of me, the piece that was nothing to all of Snowsdale, is still here, and I can’t silence it, can’t put it to rest unless I face it.”
Numair searched her eyes, concern and love shinning in his own gaze. She smiled faintly and added, “I need to go—but I can’t do it alone.”
“Never, magelet,” he whispered so only she could hear him. He pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead before turning to the king, who smiled. “When do we leave?”
Daine wandered through the Great Fair of Cría, surrounded by the sights and sounds of so many animals and people. Six years earlier, almost to the day, she had meet Onua in this very place—lying about her age, escaping from her past and its pain. It was this place with had set her on her path—to Tortall, to the Queen’s Riders, to all the people she had met. Numair, Alanna the Lioness, George, Thayet, Jon, Sarge, Evin, Miri, and all the others who had helped her move beyond her origins to become what she was now: the Wildmage of Tortall.
She greeted the People she meet, mostly horses, cats, and dogs here. There were other animals at the Fair, but they were domesticated, and frankly she had no use for chickens, pigs, and goats—or for the rats which also inhabited the city. The fact that horses gathered at fences, and dogs and cats stood side-by-side peacefully as she passed drew attention, but Daine wasn’t going to ignore her friends the avoid making two-leggers nervous.
There were whispers and stares, though—especially when a prize stallion stood calmly to receive her attentions, before playfully lipping her hair. The horse had been named Fire Eater by his handlers—it had taken six men to hold him when he’d been shoed.
Daine ignored the two-leggers as she walked to the camp outside of the city where the Tortallian company was set up. She’d fallen silent and solemn after they’d crossed into Galla, brooding over returning home.
~Don’t be daft. Tortall is home. This little trip—which you volunteered for, by the way—is just lancing a wound. In a month we’ll head home for real. So stop moping.~
Daine chuckled at the acid tones of her long-time friend, the pony Cloud, who had obviously decided that she had been wallowing long enough.
~The stork-man is fretting—he’s here, under a tree, staring at the air and worrying. I can smell it. Get back here and make him stop.~
She laughed again even as she reached the camp; laid out in perfect rows, the tents of the Riders and the Own separated by the tents of their respective Commanders. Cloud had called Numair the stork-man for years and, as a result, so did most of the People who they met. Numair found it unamusing.
She found him, indeed fretting. Away from the camp, beyond the horse picket-lines, he’d stretched out his long form under a shady tree. In simple breeches and shirt, he didn’t look like a world-famous mage, but he still looked powerful—and handsome.
Daine dropped down beside him and laid her head on his chest. One of his large, long-fingered hands came up to tangle in her curls. “Magelet?”
“Cloud wants you to stop fretting.”
“Well, she also wants me to stop brooding—which is also unlikely. But I should be more—I don’t know—myself, I suppose. I just—”
“Magelet, do you remember when we went to Carthak?”
She snorted. “How could I possibly forget?”
Daine felt a rumble under her ear as he chuckled. “Don’t worry, sweet, I sure Carthak will never forget you either. But, as I was saying, it was hard for me to return—you noticed that yourself. Memories are difficult things. Any enemy can be fought, but a memory? It’s part of you.”
Daine sighed, cuddling closer. Numair always knew what to say. “If that’s so, then why are you fretting?”
He tightened his grip on her. “I know how you were treated there—not after your mother died, but before. I don’t want you to have to face that.”
Years ago, Daine had tried to imagine falling in love, and couldn’t. She’d seen the relationships in Snowsdale—marriages for gain or status; young love becoming bitter disappointment. Now, with Numair, she knew how far removed those memories had been from real love. She loved Numair with everything she had, and his understanding and love of her was the greatest gift she’d even known.
She rolled, rising on her elbows above him, her hands resting on his chest and lips level with his own. “I can face anything, including Snowsdale, with you.”
Passion, desire, love—all glittered in his dark eyes, and she felt their match rise in her. Lips met, gently at first, but swiftly delving deeper. Hands moved, roaming, and Daine eventually found herself on her back, Numair’s weight pressing her down gently as he rested in the cradle of her hips, his warm breath teasing her neck and ear as his lips toyed with her skin. In the last year, passion had never waned—had, in fact, grown as they were free to indulge in it.
Long moments later they drew apart—slightly—so Daine could turn her face into the juncture of his neck and throat. They caught their breath, clothing rumpled, hair mussed, flushed and disheveled—and content.
“I love you, my magelet.”
She never, ever tired of hearing the words. “I love you too, Numair. I’ll be alright—I have you and our friends with me, and Tortall to return to.”
He rolled onto his back, arms tightening around her to draw her close onto his chest as they fell silent, allowing their troubles to drift away.
The Tortallian company, made of twenty-five Queen’s Riders and eleven of the King’s Own soldiers, including their respective commanders, and two mages, met with their Gallan escort outside of Cría two days after the Great Fair. Sent to aid Galla’s guests, as well as act as ambassadors and to observe the methods of the Riders, the escort consisted of a mage, two Gallan knights, and two noblemen.
The mage, Cedwin Harcourt, was a slender and a few years older than Numair with a pleasant face and demeanor. He seemed competent and careful in manner, responding politely when introduced to Buri and Raoul. When he was introduced to Numair, however, he went white with shock and awe.
“Master Salmalin! Wha—wha—we never expected such a powerful mage to take part in such a mundane matter!”
Numair responded to this with his customary aplomb. “Their majesties consider the alliance between our realms of great importance.” Buri smirked while Raoul remained impassive—though his eyes twinkled.
The knights, Sir Relwyn of Tirsa and Sir Conrik of Rockfall were of a type, though vastly different in age. Sir Relwyn was no more than twenty-two, while Sir Conrik was past fifty. Both had northern appearances—tall, blonde and fair—and were solidly built, though neither matched Numair or Raoul in stature or Raoul’s impressive build. Both men were polite and quiet—and they discreetly examined the Riders and the Own, who stood in lines by their mounts, watching their commanders and escorts impassively.
The nobles were another kettle of fish entirely. Baron Marcus of Rendale was nearly fifty, short and stocky, with steel grey hair and a large bushy mustache. His face was seemed with smile lines, though he was solemn now—and he fairly quivered with energy. He was, apparently, an advisor to the king of Galla, and there to observe, advise, and question Galla’s visitors.
Vanel of Boarder’s Peak was the son of a nobleman. He was tall and blonde like most of the northern mountain folk, and rather handsome. She found him faintly distasteful, particularly the way his eyes lingered over her and Buri’s forms. He was also from the fief which held Snowsdale, thus explaining his presence.
When the leaders of their party were introduced, there were sereval surprised looks. Raoul of Goldenlake and Malories Peak was famous in the Eastern lands—called the Giant Killer, he was famed only slightly less than Alanna the Lioness. Buri received looks as well—not only the Commander of the Queen’s Riders, but a female commander.
Numair, of course, surprised them all—and after the collected Cedwin began babbling, the rest of the escorts looked like they didn’t know whatto make of him.
She, at her own request, was introduced only as ‘Daine the Wildmage’—but this was enough to set Cedwin off again.
“Dear lady—the Wildmage! I wonder, may I speak to you about the nature of your gift? I have so many questions—”
“And we have quite a bit of road ahead of us, perfect for talking,” she interrupted with a smile. The mage beamed in academic delight.
Kitten, with her well-honed sense of mischief, chose that moment to grow bored, and scrambled out from her special saddlebag on Cloud’s back. When the small dragon, two feet long with an additional foot of tail, delicate sliver claws and blue tinged scales leapt down from the pony’s back and ran up to Daine, the Gallans stared in shock. Kitten examined each one, rattling on in her dragon-tongue as she was introduced. “This is Skysong—but she’s mostly called Kitten, or Kit.”
Raoul and Buri, judging the Gallans well, chose that moment to impress them further, and, swinging onto the backs of their own mounts, released simultaneous echoing shouts of “Move out !”
The journey was uneventful, for which Daine and Numair gave thanks. They spent time speaking with Cedwin, answering his questions, and with Baron Marcus, who was interested in their parts in the Immortals War. The knights, of course, spoke to Raoul and the Own and at night questioned the Riders on their methods—including Daine, when they discovered that she was the Assistant Horsemistress and had had a part in training nearly half the Riders present. Vanel remained aloof, speaking only to Raoul in the Tortallian party, and eyeing the female Riders—to their discomfort.
In Raoul’s tent after dark on the third day out of Cría, Daine, Numair, Buri, Evin, and Lena Fletcher, the 5th Company’s commander, gathered to discuss their sleeping escorts.
“The Baron’s a wily one,” Buri commented. “Never says as much as think he does, but gets you to say more than you mean. He’d be trouble if we weren’t already immune, thanks to George Cooper.”
They chuckled, thinking of Alanna’s tricky husband—and the king’s spymaster. “Nevertheless, I like him,” Evin put in, “but then, I’m used to Players.”
“Of course you like him—that’s what makes him good at this,” Buri smiled, “and why he was chosen. He’s a descent sort, as well—just mind your tongue around him.”
“The other one will be trouble,” Lena spoke up. With dark colouring and a wiry build, Lena was exotic, feline, and lethal. She was quiet, an observer, but had a wicked intellect which matched her looks—extraordinary. “His eyes every woman in the party like they were camp followers, not soldiers. If he approaches one, he might not take ‘no’ for an answer.”
A hush fell over the tent, with Buri looking furious and the men dark. Daine could only agree with Lena’s assumption. “When he was seventeen, and I was eleven, he raped one of the village girls who went to work at his father’s holding. I remember, because she had to go to Ma—he hurt her, badly, and she hadn’t stopped bleeding. Nothing happened to him—after all, he’s the lord’s heir, and she was just a village girl. She left the village for Tortall—that was why I headed there a year later, when Ma died.” She heard Evin hiss, audible over Buri’s curse and the snick of Lena unsheathing one of her many daggers, which she then began to hone. “He had a reputation for bedding the female servants—Lona just denied him. Others would have as well, but they knew what would happen.”
“The women will have to pair up,” Buri ground out. “Make sure they know to stay together, no less than two, or with one of the men, whenever they’re away from the company—even the privy. We might have to worry about this from bandits, but by the Horse Lords, not from a bloody noble’s son.” She turned her fierce gaze to both Daine and the younger commander. “Lena, that includes you—and double for you, Daine, as your bow is useless in such close quarters. That’s an order, and I’ll truss either one of you up if you defy it.” Lena looked like she was about to protest, but deadly stares from everyone in the tent forced her to nod stiffly.
Daine held out a hand, which rippled, growing fur even as her fingers distorted, vicious claws forming, revealing a tiger’s paw. “I have weapons at close quarters.”
Lena eyed the paw—and the needle-sharp claws—with wicked appreciation. Buri merely raised an eyebrow. “Let’s try to avoid coming to that.”
“But if it does,” Raoul broke in firmly, “and pairing up doesn’t work—defend yourselves. Don’t worry about political repercussions, they can be smoothed over later.”
Daine’s hand returned to her own, and Lena gazed at the huge knight, first measuringly, then with gratitude and profound respect. “Thank you, Sir Raoul—I’ll pass that along with the orders.”
Numair took Daine’s now-human hand and squeezed tightly. “Keep a dagger with you, magelet, especially in Snowsdale—and keep those claws handy.”
Daine nodded, a faint smile touching her lips. “As close as a thought—as always.”
She prayed that there would be no need to bloody them.
The sun was setting—earlier than normal, as they were in the mountains—and the air chilled as they approached Snowsdale village. Daine shivered with memories and the cold, and looked to a small, overgrown path which left the road before the final turn to the village. Numair, who had kept one eye on her at all times since leaving Cría, saw the direction of her gaze.
“Buri, Daine and I will follow—there’s something we need to investigate.”
Buri nodded knowingly, and Numair and Daine halted, letting the company pass by and disappear around the turn in the road. Her eyes never left the path.
“Daine, do you really want to—”
“I have to.”
Together they dismounted, Cloud and Spots, Numair’s gelding, agreeing to remain behind. Hand in hand, they walked towards Daine’s old home.
Plants had invaded the ruined cottage, and she could here the animals that had done the same. The upper story had burned away entirely, the lower scorched but intact. Shutters and doors had fallen in the last years, and debris was scattered across the part of the floor she could see through the doorway. She didn’t enter the ruin.
Nearby crude gravestones stood in a row—large rocks, with wooden markers placed carefully against them, each bearing a roughly carved name. One stone each for her ma, granda, dog Mammoth, and Cloud’s sire and dame.
“They didn’t touch anything; didn’t even come to leave proper headstones. They abandoned this place just as they did her after the attack.”
Numair felt the raw pain in her voice down to his soul. “We can come back and do it—leave proper markers. Sarra knows what you did here, Daine. That’s what’s important.”
She nodded, still staring at the graves of her loved ones, before turning into the arms of her love.
Numair held her tightly as she trembled, not with tears but with memories. Finally, after long minutes, she drew away slightly. “Let’s catch up to the rest.”
He nodded, taking her hand again and leading the way. “I love you magelet.”
She squeezed tightly on his hand. “I love you, too.”
Daine chose to lead Cloud into the village rather than ride, and Numair followed her example. She was only prolonging the inevitable, but she wanted to take a few extra minutes to prepare herself.
Snowsdale was mostly the same: like other villages, it had a central square around which the most important buildings were grouped, a small temple, and only a few streets. Some houses were more rundown than others, some more prosperous-looking. There were a few new houses and, a true mark of prosperity, an inn, which is where they were headed.
~Cloud,~ Daine said to her pony as they entered the inn’s stable yard, ~please behave. Don’t bit or kick—just be nice.~
The few stablehands were already busy with the mounts of Buri, Raoul, Evin, and Lena, as well as their escort’s horses. The rest of the company, including the two Gallan knights by their own choice, would set up camp outside the village. Due to the chaos, it was one of the youngest hands, a boy no more than eight, who approached them.
~See, he’s just a child. Will you behave?~
~For the colt, at least. I won’t promise about anyone else.~
Knowing it was the best she would get, Daine didn’t argue. To the boy she said, “Perhaps its best if you take care of my pony and no one else; Cloud likes children better than adults.”
The boy bobbed his head with a grin. “Aye, mistress.” When he took both Spots and Cloud in hand, Daine and Numair collected their packs—including the one in which Kitten slept—and went inside to the inn’s common room.
Amid the chaos of distinguished guests, the important folk of the town, and those who crowded the room in order to see so many foreigners and nobles, no one noticed the arrival of a small woman and a tall man, dusty with travel.
It took time for order to be restored and quiet to come. Baron Marcus performed the introductions between the important townsfolk—the village priest, Rikar Holden, the headman Hakkon Falkoner, innkeeper Timis Masters, and the healer/midwife Nonia—and the Gallans. It was Raoul who spoke for the Tortallians.
He spoke directly to the village leaders, though everyone watched and listened avidly. “My companions and I command soldiers of the Queen’s Riders and the King’s Own, whom will encamp at the eastern edge of the village. Our presence is twofold—first, to track down the bandit group which has been striking this region the last several months and second, to exchange information and interact with the Gallan representatives here in an effort to further the alliance between our realms.” He gestured to Buri, Lena, and Evin. “The Riders are lead by Evin Larse and Lena Fletcher, who command the 7 th and 5 th Companies respectively, and Buri Tourakom, who is the Commander of the Queen’s Riders on the whole. All the Riders were a red band on the left arm to identify them. I lead the ten soldiers of the King’s Own who are here, and within our party there are also two mages, who are also ambassadors of Tortall and commanded directly by our king.”
“In an effort help you, not only with this particular group of bandits, but with raiders in general, the Riders and Own will also work with you townspeople and militia, to teach you some of our methods for use in the future.”
There were murmurs of interest and appreciation as Hakkon responded. “Our thanks, milord, for your aid. But, can I ask, where are your mages?”
Daine felt both numb and boneless as she, next to Numair, walked towards Raoul. All eyes fell on them, but it took until halfway across the room before the gasps and mutters of recognition began—she was no longer the girl of twelve she had once been. Whispers followed in their wake, and, as she approached, she saw looks of anger, fear, and rage on the faces of the village leaders.
“Master Numair Salmalin, chief mage of Tortall, and Daine, the Wildmage.”
She barely heard Raoul’s introduction as, for the first time since her ‘madness’, she face Hakkon, who had led the attempts to slay her, and Rikar, who had instigated them.
It was Rikar, the tall, withered priest, whose mouth was always pinched in distain, who spoke first. “You dare show yourself here again? After you proved yourself to be the hellspawn I had always known you to be?”
Daine met his hate filled gaze squarely as Hakkon spoke.
“Forgive me, milord Raoul, but this girl, Daine—she, well, she’s mad, sir. She ran mad here years ago.”
“Hakkon Falkoner, we are perfectly aware of events here six years ago—more so than you. What was, to your eyes, madness, was Daine’s unique magic breaking out under traumatic circumstances. She has been cured and trained, and is a trusted friend of the Royal family.”
The coldness in Raoul’s voice perversely warmed Daine even as it forced Hakkon a step back. Rikar was not impressed.
“She has no magic—she was tested and proven without out it many times.”
“Daine has no Gift,” Numair shot out, his voice holding the scathing tone that had sent more than one scholar and mage into flight, “but she does have Wild Magic—a gift only a well-educated scholar would recognize.” His voice told everyone present that Rikar was not those things, in his eyes.
Red flagging his cheeks, Rikar glared in hatred and fury at being questioned and embarrassed. “Then she has only hidden her madness and true nature from you, as she did before. Daine Sarrasri is the seed which Snowsdale tried to stamp out many years ago—and failed. She will bring only misery.”
It was Baron Marcus who stepped forward before any of Daine’s friends could strike the priest. “Mistress Daine, you are from Snowsdale village?”
Her eyes never left Rikar and Hakkon. “Yes sir, I was raised here. When I was almost thirteen, my family was killed by bandits, and my Wild Magic broke loose—which is why I left for Tortall.”
Numair spoke up, still using a scholarly tone—one which made everything he said sound like to gods’ own truth. “Daine’s magic is in such abundance that, under the trauma of her family’s death, the natural barriers around her gift were breeched—allowing her magic to bleed into her life-force, causing the unique reactions witnessed by Snowsdale village. When we met, I was able to end that by erecting a permanent barrier between her magic and self—curing her ‘madness’ and allowing her to control her Wild Magic.”
Marcus, with some training with his own small Gift, and a scholarly background, nodded. “I see—quite remarkable. And difficult for you, Mistress, I’m sure. You were very fortunate to find Master Salmalin.”
“The feeling is mutual, sir—we met when I rescued him from a flock of Stormwings.”
“I’m glad that’s settled, then,” the Gallan concluded, his tone pointed and firm as he looked to the village elders, then scanned the room and villagers. A number of them dropped their gazes and looked away, while Hakkon refused to acknowledge Daine and Rikar went white with fury. “Now, I am sure we all are ready for rest after our journey. Perhaps we should adjourn to our rooms, and met again in the morning to discuss our plan of action?”
The Tortallians met two candlemarks later in Raoul’s chamber, spread out on the bed, single chair, and even the floor. Numair had shielded the room, black fire glittering over walls, door, and window so they couldn’t be overheard.
“You’re sure its best for Evin and me to board here instead of at the camp?” Lena questioned Buri from where they both sat on the bed.
“Yes—you’ll spend a lot of the day at camp, or scouting, but a night you need to be here for planning and relaying reports. It’s more convienent this way than to have you running between the inn and camp in the dark.” Lena nodded.
“Impressions?” Raoul asked.
“The priest is an ass,” Evin stated bluntly from where he was propped against the door. Everyone turned to look at Daine, who was on the floor in front of where Numair sat on the bed, her head resting against his knee.
“Rikar’s always been like that—though he seems a bit worse now. He’s very self-righteous, and keeps control of the village through encouraging superstition and intolerance. Ma refused to fall in line, and he saw it as questioning his authority. He pushed the town to shun her, but she was the only healer or midwife, so they could only avoid her so much. I was an easier target, and proof of what happened to those who led a wicked life—he didn’t start saying I was a demon spawn until I was older.”
Her friends looked disgusted and enraged, which soothed her as much as Numair’s hand stroking her curls.
“Unfortunately,” Raoul said, pointedly, “we’re not here to avenge Daine, and we can’t purge the world of the ignorant or stupid—”
“There’d be no one left,” Evin put in.
“—so I suggest we all stay away from the village priest,” he finished when the chuckled died down. “Daine, what else can you tell us?”
“Nonia—the healer?—she’s only got a touch of the Gift. She’s more a midwife than anything, and that mostly comes from personal experience. She’ll know bonesetting and stitching, but she’s not a true healer.”
“My man Quint’s a healer—chose the Riders over a place with Duke Baird’s people,” Lena told them. “I can keep him out of scouting and tracking, keep him close to camp as a field healer.”
“Do that, then. What about the headman?”
Daine tugged at her lip as she mussed over Raoul’s question. “Hakkon’s a harder one to figure out—always was. He was the falconer for a long time, and since our lord’s an avid hunter, it made him pretty powerful and one of the wealthier men in town. He courted Ma for a while—despite Rikar—and I think it was because being married to the region’s only healer would have made him more noticeable. He’s fair, but—” she paused, trying to describe her impression of the man. “it always seemed to me that he was fair and considerate because being so was to his advantage—people always looked up to him and listened to what he said. I guess it paid off, since he’s the headman now.”
“So he plays a deep game of power,” Buri clarified.
“And regard—what people think of him’s important. That was another reason he courted Ma, I’d say—marrying a mother and supporting a bastard would have made him look good and generous.”
“And I though nobles were bad,” Evin muttered.
“Peasants are just like nobles—they just don’t speak as pretty.” Everyone chuckled at that.
Raoul looked around at everyone, face serious. “We have a duty to stop these bandits, and to do our part in the alliance. This is the place that fate chose for that to happen, and despite our personal prejudices on Daine’s behalf, we must fulfill our missions.” Nods accompanied this, and Daine felt her lip tremble faintly as the tremendous respect and affection she felt for everyone in the room overwhelmed her. Her friends, who wanted to avenge what they saw as wrongs committed against her, but would serve their king above all else. “Alright, then, we’ve had a long day—lets get some rest, and talk in the morning.” Everyone stood to leave when Raoul went on. “And Daine? Whatever happens—and did happen—here, whatever anyone in this town says, your friends know who you are.”
She looked into warm, serious eyes, felt the gazes of the others in the room, felt her muscles relax for the first time all day. “I know who I am too—and where my real home is.”
Ten minutes later Daine undressed, slipping on one of Numair’s old shirts which served as her night clothes. Numair was still fretting as he undressed.
“Odd’s bob’s, Numair, calm down! You magically locked both our chamber door and the windows—no one will know I’m in here.”
“Daine, I just—”
“I don’t want to give these people any more arrows to use against you.”
Deflated from her building temper, Daine sat on the bed. “Numair, I need something familiar, something real here. I can’t sleep alone—you know that—and I daren’t keep my window open for my friends. If I have to sleep without you as well—” she trailed off. “Please, Numair, I need you.”
With her head down, distracted by worry, she didn’t sense Numair move until he he’d swept her up in his arms. Laying her down on the down-turned bed, he followed her down. “Then you shall have me, magelet,” he whispered, his voice deep and harsh with emotion—and desire.
With a soft cry, she wrapped her arms around him, drawing him down onto her, luxuriating in his weight and warmth, both soothing and arousing, her hands beginning to explore his broad, muscular back.
Numair allowed her to draw him into lovemaking, exploring her body—so well-known and yet endlessly fascinating—with hands and lips, wanting only to help her fight her memories and fears. As they came together, he swore to take care of her—whatever the cost.
Daine woke quickly; years of traveling, battles, and sleeping beneath the Rider’s dormitories had ended her ability to drift gradually into wakefulness. It took only a heartbeat to remember the night’s events.
She was in Snowsdale.
She stirred, reality sinking in and making her restless, only to feel the strong arm draped across her waist tighten, drawing her more firmly into the warmth of the blankets and her lover. Restlessness fading, a smile touched her lips as she laced her fingers with the ones resting under her breasts.
For a year they had been lovers, but the pleasure of waking up in Numair’s arms had never waned. She had been used to sleeping near him while they traveled, and was equally used to the presence of warm bodies in her bed, as her People friends often joined her at night to keep her warm and provide company. She had thought that, except for their lovemaking, sharing a bed with Numair would seem no different. It had taken one night to realize her mistake.
Numair was loath to release her in sleep, and they slept close together, either spooning or with her at his side, using his shoulder as a pillow. There was something intimate about laying there, skin to skin, sharing warmth and even breath.
Going to sleep surrounded by his warmth, his spicy scent in her nostrils, and waking the same way, was one of her greatest pleasures and comforts. With Numair in her bed, she could sleep easily even without Kitten or any of her friends; when he was away from her, all the animals in the Palace couldn’t make up for his absence.
Daine shifted closer to Numair, the entire length of her back pressed against his chest, his hips cradling hers. She felt him stir slightly, his breath washing over her neck as he sleepily nuzzled under her ear—one of his most endearing habits—and she playfully wiggled again.
She heard a faint rumble rise from his throat as his arms tightened further, stopping her movements. “Behave magelet—don’t start something you can’t finish.”
She relaxed, her body going limp, and Numair’s arms also relaxed fractionally as he kissed her shoulder gently. As soon as she felt his arms give, she pounced—turning even as she pushed him back. A moment later, she was looking down at him, stretched out on his chest with a wicked grin. “It’s only false dawn—I’ve plenty of time to start and finish.”
Numair laughed, a throaty chuckle that made her shiver, and tangled his fingers in her curls, which spilled over her shoulders and across his chest. “Really? Because if you’re pressed for time I can hurry.”
There was a look in his eyes that she had become familiar with, one which was both playful and hungry, and it never failed to make her shiver.
“Well, we do have a busy day—perhaps that’s best.”
In a move too quick for her to see, he lunged, wrapping her in his arms and flipping her onto her back. With his dark hair falling around his face, framing it and creating a screen around them, their lips only inches apart, and her wrists held gently but firmly in his grasp, Daine’s breath shortened, speeding up further as all she tasted was his scent. His black eyes glittered in a face drawn tight with passion.
“Whatever you say, sweet,” he murmured, even as his lips descended the meager space between them to capture hers. All rational though fled, taking with it worries, fears, and memories, and leaving only him; his scent, his taste, his touch.
His breathing, still slightly ragged, was broken by a faint chuckle that she felt more than heard. Daine lifted her head from where she was curled up on his chest to gaze dazedly at him. He took in her tousled curls and swollen lips and chuckled again.
“One of these days, magelet, you’re going to kill me.”
She humphed , dropping her head back down to his chest, listening to his steady—albeit rapid—heartbeat. “Don’t blame me —you did that all on your own. I was just along for the ride.”
His chuckle became an amused laugh as, with some difficulty, he lifted a hand to stroke her hair. “But you were the one who suggested the pace.”
“It was only a suggestion—you didn’t have to follow it.”
He laughed again, so hard that she had to hold on or be shaken off. “But it was an excellent suggestion.”
“Then don’t complain.” She found the energy, somewhere, to nuzzle against his chest, brushing a light kiss against his skin. His hand tightened in her hair.
“Stop that—that’s what started this in the first place. Any more and you will kill me.”
“I didn’t hear you arguing,” she muttered, to his further amusement, but relented, her ear once more against his heart.
They lay like that, amid tangled blankets, Daine draped across him and Numair stroking her hair, as their pulses slowed and bodies cooled. Finally, Numair spoke. “We’ll have to get up some time—we do have a job to do.”
“Don’t let them hurt you, Daine. If they can’t see what you are, then they aren’t worth your thoughts.”
Gods, she loved him. “What am I, Numair?”
“You are Daine, the Wildmage, friend to the People and heroine of Tortall. You’re friend to royalty—including an emperor—knights, and soldiers; a member of the Long Lake Pack, and the Assistant Horsemistress of the Queen’s Riders. You’re the daughter of Sarra, healer, midwife, and goddess, and Weiryn, god of the hunt. You’re stubborn and passionate, brave to the point of foolhardiness, and loyal to the bone. You’re Daine,” he concluded, softly, “my Daine.”
A tear slipped out, landing on his swarthy skin, before she controlled the rest. “Foolhardy, huh?” she managed with a sniff.
She could feel him smile. “Oh, yes—anyone who walks right up to enraged dragons, takes on entire flocks of Stormwings, tears down Palaces, and faces down the Great Gods—and not only argues with them but wins the argument —is utterly foolhardy.”
“You’d best say it right out—I’m mad, is what I am. Besides, I’d have to be, to have taken you on.”
“I didn’t hear you arguing,” he growled, playfully returning her own words.
“Well, you have your uses.”
“Dare I ask?” he said dryly.
“You make an excellent pillow.”
“My life is complete now—I can aspire no higher.” He gripped the back of her neck, gently drawing her up to his face, where he kissed her once, hard. “Enough, magelet—we must get up, before someone comes to look for us.” He slid out from under her to look for his clothes.
Daine curled up around a pillow and watched him, admiring, as he pulled on black breeches. “Your stamina is excellent too,” she added helpfully.
He turned to glower at her, even as his lips twitched. “We do our poor best. Up!”
She frowned at him before rolling to her knees, holding out her hand for her discarded clothes. A sky blue shirt flew at her, falling across her head rather than into her hand. Daine struggled into it, muttering as she did so. “Your aim is bad, though.”
“Care to wager on that?”
“You missed, didn’t you?”
“No,” he said calmly as her head emerged from the neck hole, “I didn’t.”
She scowled at him. “Why do I put up with you?”
He raised his eyebrow and, recognizing the expression on his face as pure mischief, she scrambled ungracefully back. His reach was long, however, and he caught her shoulder, pulling her into a long, drawn-out kiss before she could blink.
“I think that has something to do with it,” he said calmly some minutes later as he drew back. His breathing was a little uneven, but she barely noticed as she stared dazedly at him, trying to regain her scattered wits.
He dumped her breeches in her lap with a chuckle. “Get dressed, magelet.”
She did so automatically. As she fastened the breeches, Daine finally snapped back into her senses. Her head shot up and she glared at him. “You are evil.” Numair only laughed—and moved out of reach.
Numair and Daine entered the inn’s common room a quartermark later to find most of their party already there, breaking their fast, along with a number of curious townsfolk. Spread out at one of the rough wooden tables by the hearth, all of the Tortallians minus Lena, and both Gallan knights and Baron Marcus ate while chatting or—in Evin’s case—while yawning hugely. The Rider had never been an early riser, Daine thought with a amusement, remembering how Evin had received special attention from Sarge when he didn’t wake on time; ‘special attention’ being the trainer standing directly next to Evin’s ear when he let out one of his famed bellows.
“Ah, Daine, Numair,” Raoul called out when he spotted them. “Come and sit.”
The room, not particularly noisy to begin with, fell silent when Raoul called her name, as every one of the villagers turned to look—or, for some—glare at her. The serving maid looked fearful as she approached with bread, cheese, and dried fruit, and scampered away from the table and Daine as soon as she placed the tray before her. Daine shrugged as her friends looked disgusted.
“We can’t get out of here soon enough,” Evin muttered angrily, stabbing at a piece of yellow cheese and glancing around the room at the villagers.
“There is little that common folk fear more than the thought of madness.” Baron Marcus said diplomatically. “You must forgive their ignorance towards Mistress Daine.”
“The only thing worse than madness is curses to these folk,” Daine told Evin, but she spoke so everyone at the table could here her. “And, thanks in part to Rikar, they see me as having both—they’ll never accept me, or even stop being afraid of me. But then, they never really liked me in the first place, so it’s not that different.”
“Lena went to check in with the camp and give out the morning’s duties,” Buri spoke, changing direction swiftly. “When she gets back, we’ll lay out our plans for today and the long haul. Are you up to a little scouting, Daine?”
“Always,” Daine grinned, eager to have a reason to shapeshift and escape, briefly, the tension of Snowsdale.
“Alright, then,” Buri concluded some time later, “the 7 th Company will be scouting out it a five mile radius from Snowsdale, with Daine covering the entire circle. Evin, remind your group to stay in pairs and not to confront anyone they find—reconnaissance only . The 5 th and the Own will be here, setting up a perimeter, and setting up precautions for any attack. This is what you want to know about, Baron,” she spoke to Marcus, who was watching everyone at the table avidly. “How the Riders work with towns and villages, and what they teach the folk to do to defend themselves. Snowsdale is our base camp, since it’s central to the region. Next week, we’ll send small groups out to the other targeted villages to make the same arrangements, but its Snowsdale that’s been the real target.”
“Very reasonable, Commander.”
“Excuse me, Commander,” Sir Conrik asked, looking confused, “but how will Mistress Daine cover an area that it takes twelve other men to scout?”
Buri only raised an eyebrow as the rest of the Tortallians chuckled. It wasn’t a question often asked—most of Tortall knew what Daine was capable of—and obviously looked forward to the anticipated shocked expressions of their escorts. Cedwin, who knew a great deal about her gift, turned to stare at her with wide, eager eyes. “You’ll see, Sir Conrik,” Buri answered.
“My men are ready, Commander, as soon as you give the word,” Evin stated, standing up. “I’ll be riding the northernmost sector, along with Relan.”
“Good. Numair, the speaking spell?”
Numair held out his left hand, palm up, and focused on it. Within moments, a glittering ball of black fire laced with silver appeared. It rose several inches from his hand and into Evin’s cupped hands.
A voice, echoing as if coming from inside a well, came from the ball. “Commander? Do we move out?”
“Everyone in their assigned sectors, with their partners,” Evin said with authority, knowing that, at the other end, his voice was being heard by the entire camp through the spell’s receiving end. “Don’t split up, and don’t do anything stupid. Do not confront any suspicious persons, under any circumstances—any one who does will be on latrine duty for three months, and I am serious. The spelled flares you have are only for emergencies, or if you’re under immediate attack. Daine will be accompanying us as well.”
The spell collapsed, leaving several impressed Gallans. “Is that really an effective way of giving orders?” Sir Relwyn asked.
“Lack of communication between various parts of an army is one of the greatest difficulties in coordinating troop movements,” Raoul spoke. “The spells allow immediate communications between officers, even in the heat of battle or over a large distance, and can’t be intercepted like messengers can.”
“And, once they’ve been set up, someone with even a small gift can activate the receiving end,” Lena explained, “so you don’t need a mage with every troop—making it perfect for Riders to uses, as well as the army, navy, and the Own.”
Marcus looked eagerly at Evin’s now empty hands. “I have a number of questions about that spell—I haven’t seen a speaking spell like that.”
“Nor I,” Cedwin added.
“Then perhaps you’d like to speak to Numair this afternoon—he perfected the spell for use in battle.”
Daine nearly laughed as Numair became the immediate focus of several sets of eyes. That would keep him out of trouble for a while.
“Daine, Evin, head out now.”
“Yes sir,” they responded, saluting, making Buri laugh.
Daine turned towards the main door, catching Numair’s eye for a heartbeat. In that moment, they held an entire conversation with their gaze.
Be safe, sweet, and be careful
Always—stay out of trouble
She took two steps towards the door before she noticed Rikar and Hakkon standing several feet away—not surprising, as the village would become directly involved this afternoon when the Riders began making improvements to protect it. Hakkon looked past her, over her shoulder—ignoring her existence in the same manner that people were ‘cut’ at court—unacknowledged and therefore, nonexistent to their so-called ‘betters’. She found it far more hateful than Rikar’s overt disgust.
Evin had reached the door and turned to look for her. Seeing who she was watching, he made to return to her side—a curt gesture stopped him. Behind her, her friends were alert, ready to come to her aid at a moments notice.
“Sir Conrik, you wanted to know how I can cover the same distance as the 5 th Company, didn’t you?”
“Ah, yes mistress.”
A moment later, over a heap of clothing, a giant timber wolf stood, four feet at the shoulder with a heavy pelt of mixed greys. There were gasps, shouts, and even a scream from the timid serving maid. With her wolf’s nose, she could scent the fear coming from several people—predominately the two men she kept her gaze locked on.
Hakkon stared at her—her wolf self, anyway—in stunned shock, eyes wide and mouth agape. Deliberately, she yawned, revealing powerful jaws lined with sharp teeth, and was satisfied when he staggered back a step.
Rikar watched her with horror, true fear in his eyes. She felt no real pleasure, just a kind of peace—she had no reason to fear Rikar as she had as a child, because in the end, she was capable of far more than he was. In her wolf’s body, she was able to attain perspective, and no longer saw the priest through a child’s eyes, but those of the woman she was now.
She scooped up her clothes in her mouth turning to drop them by Numair. He raised a single eyebrow at her, as if to say ‘And I’m supposed to stay out of trouble?‘ She shook herself lightly with a soft woof of amusement, before starting for the door.
A path between her and the entrance opened immediately as the lingering townsfolk scrambled to get out of her way. Evin held the door open for her, and at the threshold she sat down, sniffing the air.
The sky was clear, and she could cover more ground from the air than even her wolf-shape could. Shaking herself again, she changed shape once more, sliding comfortably into a falcon’s body. Blinking rapidly to adjust to the raptor’s vision, which had a narrower peripheral range than a wolf’s did, she heard Evin clear his throat behind her.
Human hands cradled her gently as she was lifted from the ground. Carefully, fully aware of the damage a gyrfalcon’s talons could do—including sever the spine of a human-sized animal—she griped Evin’s wrist gently where his archery guards extended.
“Ready, Daine?” he asked and, when she bobbed her head, he tossed her up giving her the lift necessary to take flight.
Her last view as she shot off north was of Snowsdale falling away behind her, becoming little more than a grey-brown blur on the landscape.
Once beyond Snowsdale, Daine shifted into the form of red-tailed hawk. Falcons were built for speed, covering large distances and diving from great heights to capture prey. For scouting though, which required covering an area thoroughly rather than quickly, she preferred a hawk’s form, built perfectly for circling and gliding.
Scouting was never routine, but it was familiar; over the years, this was what she most often contributed to whatever fighting force she worked with. Systematically, she quartered the area around Snowsdale, seeking anything out of the ordinary, or anything that the Riders on the ground might not find.
She crossed the paths of all of the 7 th Company at various times, all of whom looked up at the familiar sight of a hawk circling them, waving when she dipped slightly to let them know it was her. The Riders, she knew, were not only scouting, but familiarizing themselves with the territory they would likely be called to fight in; possible escape routes, hiding places, and convenient places for ambush were carefully noted and recorded.
Parts of the land she covered were familiar, as she had ranged far in her hunting and riding even as a girl. There was a slight hitch in her movements as she flew over the clearing where she had once watched sheep for her granda, and when she recognized the track she had taken when, mad with grief and her magic, she had followed the bandits who had killed her ma in the company of the pack. Inside her hawk-shape, Daine shivered lightly, setting aside the hazed memories, focusing on her task. When she returned to the village, she would be able to give greater details on some of the caves and ravines the Riders discovered, for the perspective of someone who saw them in all weathers and conditions. Some of the hunters and trappers in the village would be asked the same thing, a routine for the Riders in new territory, but they would only be questioned so much; while the party was here to educate as well as protect, they would keep their battle plans secret as more then one villager had proven to be a member of the bandits attacking their villages.
Two-leggers and their greed never ceased to amaze her.
It was the work of long hours to cover the entire area; even after she had completed her scouting, she remained in the air, circling the entire search area. As long as the scouting parties remained out, so would she. If any of the pairs encountered trouble, she could raise the alarm as effectively as any speaking spells or flares. It was late afternoon, with the sun already deepening to orange beyond the mountains, when they all returned to Snowsdale and the camp.
Daine shifted into the shape of a small finch, settling on Evin’s shoulder while he took the reports of all of his Company, along with the maps they had made of each region. There were points of interest, and a pair who had scouted the northwestern sector of the search area had found a narrow track that was had seen far too much heavy use to be a game trail. There had been no overt signs of bandits, but there had been signs of their passing.
“Well, then, Horse Mistress, shall we?” He finally asked, bowing grandly as he gestured towards the town square. She cheeped with good humor as she was forced to cling to his tunic. Evin might be a Player and a flirt, but he was kind and compassionate—even if it was hidden under teasing words and playful gestures. She knew he was trying to distract her from any worries she had, and was grateful to only for his attempts, but his presence. The long hours of scouting had given her plenty of time to reflect, and she was still mulling over the thoughts tumbling in her head. Evin and his familiar, light-hearted presence was welcome.
With Daine still on her friend’s shoulder, they entered the inn, only to find the common room full of villagers. The noise in the room paused for a heartbeat as everyone turned to see Evin, before returning, at a much softer volume; it wasn’t hard to realize what—or who —they were talking about.
She wasn’t about to cower behind Evin, or remain in a form small enough to be ignored. If Snowsdale wanted to talk about her, she’d at least make the talk interesting.
“Daine?” Evin questioned when she leapt off his shoulder, gliding down to the floor, taking her wolf-shape once more. Silence fell, and she ignored the slack-jawed stares and signs against the evil made against numerous chests, shaking herself furiously, before trotting across the room.
The party was at the same table as this morning, with the absence of Lena and Sir Relwyn, who were at the camp. Numair had obviously been in discussion with Cedwin and Marcus, and Buri, Raoul, and Conrik were gesturing towards the papers spread out before them, intent on whatever they were seeing. Buri looked up at the silence to see Evin and a timber wolf, and made a come-ahead gesture, obviously unconcerned with the predator. Cedwin and Marcus watched her intently, both nearly quivering with curiosity.
When Daine reached the group, several steps ahead of Evin, she gathered herself and leapt—resulting in a number of gasps and shouts throughout the room—shifting as she did so, until she landed gracefully on the table as a sleek tabby cat.
“Really, Daine,” Numair sighed, “where has this taste for the dramatic come from?”
She flicked her tail at him, sitting herself down on the table, and blinked slowly. After a moment, he sighed again, this time in amusement, and ran a long finger down the back of her head and neck. Eyes slitted with pleasure, she purred, butting her head against his hand until he gave in and continued to stroke her.
“Incredible,” Cedwin breathed, leaning down close to her. “Truly remarkable.”
Daine liked Cedwin, truly, but she recognized the scholarly gleam in his eyes and knew, without care, she could end up under his examination and questioning all night. Briefly, she laid back her ears and, when he back off several inches in surprise, meowed once, authoritatively.
Cedwin blinked, then laughed warmly, abashed. “I am sorry, Mistress Daine, forgive me—I tend to get—involved—and forget my manners.”
She relaxed, blinking at him once to show her forgiveness, before ignoring him and returning to enjoying Numair’s gentle hand in her fur. She heard Numair laugh and Marcus inquire intently, “She takes on aspects of the animal form she takes?”
“My lord, she becomes the animal—with her human mind, but also with all of the instincts and abilities of whatever creature she takes the form of.”
“Incredible,” he echoed Cedwin’s sentiment.
Buri sighed. “Gentlemen, Daine, if we could—we do have a task at hand. Daine, I need your report.”
Reluctantly, Daine allowed Numair to stop petting her and stood up. Before she could move any further, she was scooped up into Numair’s strong arms.
“I’ll take her to her room—it’s locked,” he explained, moving away from the table and to the stairs. “A moment.”
When they were out of sight, Daine rubbed firmly against him, stretching up to rub her face against his chin—as cats marked mates with scent.
“Stop that, sweet,” he chuckled, reaching her door. He retrieved a key from his pocket, turning it in the lock, and the click of the lock was echoed by a flare of black and silver fire around the handle. “I spelled it, as well.”
Inside, he closed the door firmly as she put herself back in her own body—and then drew her close to him.
“Buri’ll kill us if we don’t go back,” she murmured, cuddling close.
“In a moment,” he said, pressing his face to her hair with a sigh. “Are you alright?”
“Ummm, nothing terribly interesting happened.”
“That wasn’t what I meant, but it’ll do for now.” He leaned back, searching her eyes for any signs of distress. He must have found nothing, because he relaxed and kissed her softly. “We’ll talk later.”
“Ummm,” she murmured again, rubbing her cheek against his shirt lazily.
He smiled. “You’re not a cat anymore, magelet.”
She scowled at him briefly, for form. “Speaking of cats, where’s Kitten?”
“She went with Lena—much to the commander’s confusion. I couldn’t keep her in here all day, and she was far to interested in exploring the inn, so I let her go.”
“Thank the Goddess—maybe she’ll wear herself out.” At Numair’s wry expression she sighed. “Never mind—vain hope.”
Numair kissed her again, lingering only a moment, before stepping back, causing her to shiver slightly. “Get dress, magelet, before Buri comes looking for us.”
She shooed him out. “You go, or it’ll cause talk.”
He turned back at the door to smile at her, a warm expression of affection and love that always made her heart stagger for just an instant. “Hurry, sweet; the sooner we deal with business, the sooner we’ll be finished with it.”
She raised her eyebrow at him, trying not to laugh. “I thought you wanted to talk.”
“I said later—I wasn’t specific.”
Laughing, she shoved him out the door.
A few minutes later she trotted down the steps and into the common room, heading directly for her friends. Buri and Raoul had already laid out the maps that Evin’s Company had made that day, each sector overlapping the ones on either side, forming a completed and detailed map of a circle ten miles in diameter with Snowsdale at its center.
“The Riders are specifically trained in map-making,” Buri was explaining to Marcus and Conrik. “The maps of Tortall have become increasingly accurate and detailed in the last few years, as King Jonathan replaces the older, outdated ones with maps drawn by the Riders. It’s actually a secondary function of the Company.”
“And you trust the Riders to complete these maps?” Conrik asked seriously.
Buri eyed him sternly. “As I said, Riders are trained by the Crown in mapping—the Riders are not like militias, Sir Conrik, affiliated only by purpose and name. All Riders undergo the same, uniform training not only in Corus, but at the Palace. The training is intensive and demanding, and anyone who doesn’t have the inclination or ability to do everything required of the Riders either washes out or is sent home. No Rider would submit lax or inaccurate reports or maps, even if they could get away with it.”
“You must understand, Sir Conrik,” Raoul interrupted, obviously giving Buri a chance to calm her temper—only slightly less infamous than the Lioness’s, at least at the Palace. “That the Riders work, in all things, as a Company—each Rider is responsible for recording the territory their group is assigned to, and those records are submitted to their Commander, who then incorporates them all into maps—which are then updated, altered, and revised by the entire Company. If, as in some cases, the Commander is not the most proficient mapper in the group, then he assigns the task to the individual who is—Lena, I believe, gives that responsibility to Gretna, who comes from a line of painters and artists, and is exceptionally skilled.”
“How much more accurate are these new maps, would you say, my lord?” Marcus asked intently.
“The previous maps, some of which were last commissioned during King Roald’s reign, were accurate to within five miles in heavily populated areas, and in the wilder regions, to within eight miles—on average. The new ones are accurate, respectfully, to within a one-half and two miles—and are far more detailed, not only in respect to the human geography, but to the landscape of Tortall.”
Daine smiled in pride for her adopted home, and the Riders, at hearing Raoul’s facts, and at the surprised and eager look on Marcus’s face. The clever baron was obviously impressed and deeply interested in this information, not only to Daine’s pleasure, but to Buri and Evin’s as well, who had great reason to have pride in the Rider’s skills and contribution to their realm.
“Daine,” Buri spotted her and motioned her over. “Come have a look, and give your report. Do you have anything to add to what Evin and the Company saw?”
Able to set aside her simmering thoughts, stirred by long hours spent in—or rather, above—her former home, Daine settled in to do what she knew best—work.
There were long hours of discussion and reports, planning and speculation. Sir Conrik left for the camp at one point, and his college returned to join them. Lena showed up not long after Daine had, reporting the preparations that had been made in and around Snowsdale, and what was yet to be done. Numair had scryed, but only within an eight mile radius, and found nothing; tomorrow he would look further—when he wasn’t trapped by Cedwin and Marcus, both eager to pick his mind for information. Vanel was nowhere to be seen, having elected to return to his father’s keep that morning, to inform him of their arrival and, she presumed, to avail himself of the creature comforts and more ‘civilized’ company there.
Plans were laid; detailed ones for tomorrow and the next days, and more general ones for the days, and weeks, that followed. There was not only Snowsdale to consider, but the nearby villages of Greenwald and Rockvale, as well as the more remote farms and herds scattered throughout the area, all of whom were under threat of the bandits.
Food continued to be served and devoured, fueling men and women who had spent the day using magic and muscle, embroiled in politics and planning, though drink—at least the stronger ales and meads—flowed with more restraint. There could be no muddled thoughts or weak stomachs, tonight or in the morning. While not under attack, they were in a battle situation and, therefore, the Tortallians were to follow their training and remain, at all times, prepared and alert.
Each time food and drink appeared, the servers stayed far away from Daine, skirting away form her gaze and keeping a substantial distance between themselves and her form. Even immersed in work and discussion, she felt the heat of stares on her neck—some frightful, some upset, some enraged and resentful—and heard murmurs and whispers directed to her. Several times, Buri, Raoul, Evin, or Lena would hear something particular that caused them to react—a stiffening of muscles, a quiet twitch, a snort of disgust—and they would give her a serious look, a supportive smile, or an amused smile, all in equal support. Numair, discreetly, laid his hand on her knee under the table—and left it there. The warmth of his hand, the light pressure, and occasional gentle squeezes, centered and balanced her as much as her friends silent support and frustration on her behalf warmed her—and all of it, the villagers and their reactions, holding up her own head, and maintaining a calm mask in order to reassure her friends—was exhausting her. Tension thrummed in her neck and shoulders, a light headache built steadily in her temples, and her lip was sore from chewing it—or, rather, biting it. She had never been one to hold her tongue, and the tact required in order to act on Tortall’s behalf, and to negotiate between two-leggers and immortals, had been hard-won.
Daine’s head came up in surprise at the voice from behind her. It was low and female, and not belonging to any of her friends, but that one of the villagers would address her seemed impossible.
Turning slightly, braced for anything, Daine looked up at a face very much from her past. The years had added a few lines, but she was mostly unchanged. There was a tentative look in the woman’s eyes, matching the hesitation in her tone. She wrung her hands, strong and callused from years as a shepherd’s wife, in front of her waist.
“It is you,” she murmured. “Daine.”
A weak smile touched the older woman’s face as she nodded. A contemporary of her ma’s, Lori had been one of the only woman in the region who had sought Sarra out for anything other than medicines, one who had not seemed to think Sarra was after her husband or willing to corrupt her children.
“I’m not surprised y’don’t recognize me right off,” Lori went on. “It’s been years.”
“Yes—but you look the same,” Daine answered automatically, her head swirling with memories—of Rand showing her how to pull a lamb when she was six, of helping Lori with her babies—the only children she’d been allowed around—of Lori slipping her an extra slice of bread before she rode home, only an hour before she found her family dead and her life shattered.
“I’d hardly know it was you—a woman grown, you are.”
Lori smiled at her, less tentatively, with a hint of tears in the torchlight as she looked Daine up and down, much as she had each time Daine had visited her, exclaiming over the changes in her in the few months between visits. Suddenly, she blinked, and seemed to freeze, like a deer caught at dawn. Daine felt her heart ache, sure of rejection from this one friendly face, before she realized Lori was looking over her shoulder. Glancing back, Daine let out a sigh or relief, exasperation, and amusement.
Buri, Raoul, Evin, and Lena watched Lori closely, like cats at a mouse hole—waiting for a twitch, a blink out of place. Numair, however, looked far more like a wolf than a cat.
“It’s alright, everyone—this is Lori Hyrdsman, a friend of my ma’s. Goddess bless,” she laughed, “you don’t have to stand guard on me—I’m not a spring lamb.”
Raoul seemed to back down, returning to his discussion with Marcus, who politely pretended nothing had happened. Buri also returned to her work, the diagrams she and Lena had been examining, though she watched Lori from the corner of her eye. Evin gave a charming grin, not at all apologetic, and Lena turned away, satisfied. Numair continued to watch Lori, though without the hunter’s gleam in his eye.
Daine sighed. Lori relaxed slightly, a confused look on her face—and a wary eye on Numair. “Daine?”
“My friends are a little protective. This is Numair Salmalin, by the way, my teacher—he taught me to use my magic.”
“How d’you do, Master Salmalin?” Lori curtsied slightly.
“Very well, Mistress Hyrdsman.”
“Numair, be polite—Lori’s a friend.” She elbowed him sharply, which he ignored, and turned back to Lori, who watched the exchange with interest. “How’s Rand?”
“He’s well enough—we both worried about you,” she said hurriedly. “We didn’t know ‘bout Sarra for days, and when we came to fetch you, they told us you’d run mad, but we didn’t believe it. And then Hakkon tried to trick you so the hunters could put you down, and Rand was furious , but you got away, and then you disappeared. We didn’t know—”
Her words had become rambling as tears began, and Daine felt her own rise. Only a few people in her life had cried for her, and she had thought they were all in Tortall. She grabbed Lori’s hand.
“It’s alright, Lori—I made it into Cria safe, and met up with Onua Chamtong of the Riders. That’s how I got to the Palace—Onua needed help getting two strings of ponies back to the capital. I’m fine,” she finished.
Lori nodded once, blinking away her tears. “Good, then, I’m glad.”
Daine became aware how quiet the room had become as the villagers noticed that, not only had someone approached her, but was speaking to her with no sign of fear or censure. The need to protect rose swiftly.
“We should catch up,” she said firmly. “Buri, do you need anything else from me?”
“Not tonight, I don’t think.”
“Come up with me, Lori, you can tell me about Rand and the littles—Cory must be nearly fifteen.”
“Daine?” Numair asked quietly. She turned to him and smiled, reassuring him. He examined her face for a long moment, before nodding. Then he gazed at Lori and, after a pause, gave her a slight smile and a nod. Lori blinked at him as Daine stood.
“G’night all,” she addressed the table, drawing Lori away and up the stairs, away from prying eyes, even as her farewell was echoed by her friends. At the stairs, she grinned at the slightly confused woman. “Don’t you want to know how I came to be in such company?”
Lori smiled a bit, her eyes dazed as she was forced to reassess, and she Daine not as a child but as a woman and an equal. After a moment, her smile became fuller. “You’ve adventures to tell of, then?”
“I’m no bard, but I’ve some stories.”
“Well, then, let’s get on with it—Cory’ll be fair upset if I don’t bring him some tales of his cousin Daine.”
Numair climbed the stairs towards the inn’s bedchambers, frowning in a mix of thought and concern. Daine had gone up to her chamber with Lori Hyrdsman well over a candlemark ago, and he had been hard-pressed not to interrupt earlier. She had seemed to greet the woman happily, if with some confusion, but he had no idea if the woman had since upset Daine—after all, she was a reminder of Daine’s last days in Snowsdale, and the death of her mother.
He tapped lightly on Daine’s door, managing it in spite of the dragonet sleeping in a limp sprawl in his arms. When a muffled response came through the thick wood, he opened it, stepping confidently inside.
Daine sat back against the pillows of her bed, cross-legged, facing the woman who sat at the edge of the bed. Lori’s face was a mix of confusion, amazement, disbelief, and astonishment. Her eyes were red, obviously from crying, and Daine’s own eyes were suspiciously red-rimmed.
“Numair, you’ve perfect timing—Lori’s just about to leave.”
He gazed at his love carefully, searching for distress or pain, besides the evidence of tears, and found none—she was relaxed and confident. He blew out a quiet sigh of relief.
“It’s very late—how will you get home, Mistress?” he asked, with a great more civility than he’d used in the common room.
She blinked at him in surprise. “Ah—I’m staying with m’sister, Master Salmalin—she’s just had a babe, and I came to the village to help her on her feet.” She glanced back at Daine with a stern glance. “‘Tis likely the only reason I knew of Daine’s coming here.”
“I would have paid a visit,” Daine defended herself. Under an even sterner look, she humph ed. “Eventually.”
“Great mother Goddess—is that—?” Lori stammered, gaze locked on the scaled form in his arms.
“Yes, that’s Kit—she did manage to wear herself out, thank the Goddess. Numair, would you lay her down on the hamper?”
Numair deposited the dragonet in the heavy wicker basket that held Daine’s clothes, feeling Lori’s eyes on him as he did so. When he straightened, turning back to the bed, the older woman looked pointedly at him and stated, “I’d best go now, Daine.”
He stood where he was when she didn’t move, continuing to look at him, feeling a touch of amusement. Lori’s brow drew into a frown before Daine let out a laugh.
“It’s alright, Lori,” she chuckled, “you don’t have to guard my honor, or my virtue.”
“I don’t care a pence for what the village folk say, Daine, you’ve got honor to spare—and you aren’t to be blamed for anything your parents did.”
“Thank you, Lori, but that wasn’t what I meant. You don’t have to chaperone me with Numair.” Daine grinned, a little slyly at him, even as Lori blinked at her in confusion. “After all, why shut the barn door when the horse has already fled.”
He sighed. She was definitely feeling herself. “Really, magelet, must you?”
“Honor I might have, Lori, but I’ve a bit less virtue now—I gave a part of it to Numair.”
“Daine,” he stated dryly, refusing to be amused at her phrasing.
Lori stood up quickly and rounded on him so quickly he blinked in surprise. “For shame! Taking advantage of her like that! She’d your student, and she’s but a girl!”
“Lori!” Daine stood up, gripping her friend’s arm firmly. While she was partly grateful for the defense—as she was grateful for the last candlemark of conversation, memories, and chatter—the one thing she could never bear was anyone casting aspirations on Numair’s honor. “He didn’t take advantage of me, and he’s not really my teacher anymore—and I’m not a girl!”
Her tirade cut short, Lori looked at her, eyes demanding an explanation—she looked, at the moment, very much like a mother, one who was giving her offspring a reprieve to justify breaking a rule—but was fully prepared to cuff them at a moment’s notice.
“I’m eighteen, Lori. The girls in Snowsdale my age are all married, some with babies of their own. And Numair would never take advantage of me.”
“We’re betrothed—handfasted,” Numair said quietly, coming to take her hand. Daine squeezed lightly, drawing on his unending support.
Lori blinked once, twice, and a third time as understanding filled her face. Daine drew the chain that never left her neck out from under her shirt, offering it to Lori.
There was the badgers claw, the heavy silver object that not only tied her the animal god and her parents, but had saved her life. A small charm hung behind it, the very recognizable glyph which was to prevent pregnancy. But it was the third object which drew Lori’s eyes.
A ring, made of many interwoven bands, held together by nothing but each other, it was a puzzle ring—a token of love, symbolizing entwining hearts and lives, and a gift for a betrothal. This ring had a full sixteen bands, rather than the more common eight and, rather than being made out of carved wood, or of simple metals, was of silver and copper—silver for Numair, and copper for herself, the colors of their magics.
“Oh,” she sighed, looking up into both their faces. “I’m fair sorry, Master Salmalin,” she began.
“No need, Mistress, please—you were looking out for Daine, which I can apprieciate, as I’ve spent some amount of effort in the same direction.”
Lori nodded, and met Daine’s eyes. She could she the return of tears in her older friend’s eyes, and reached out, tentatively, to hug her. The embrace was returned firmly, with all the strength Lori had developed in her years of raising children, tending a house, and helping on the farm. When she drew back, the tears were gone and, in their place, was a brisk, kind woman, who brimmed with practicality and sense, and was as steady as the earth—just as she had been during all the years of Daine’s childhood.
“I’d best be off—Rona will fret herself ill, and she’s enough to do with the babe already. I won’t speak of anything,” she vowed to Daine, “including you and Master Salmalin. Let the village think what they want. And you’d best do what I asked, or Rand will come in himself to take you.”
“Lori invited me to the farm for dinner one night,” Daine explained to Numair. “I’ll try.”
“Good—I know you’ve important work here, but I’m sure those friends will give you a few hours to yourself. Sarra must be fair proud of you,” she added, “she always was, but now—well, you’ve done her proud, and your da as well. I’m off,” she managed, her voice breaking slightly with more tears. “I’ll be seeing you later. Fare you well, Master Numair.” Before either of the lovers could respond, she had fled out the door.
Daine stared out the open door after Lori for several long moments until Numair used a touch of his Gift to nudge the door closed. He saw Daine blink, coming back to herself, as he sealed the door with his black-and-silver magic, locking out the world.
“Hmmm? Oh,” she jumped, startled, and turned towards him. “Yes?”
“Are you alright, sweet?”
She smiled at him, and the tight knot of anxiety that had tangled in his stomach all evening eased slightly. “I’m fair wonderful, Numair. I’d forgotten, you see.”
“Forgotten?” He noticed that she had slipped into a deeper Gallan accent, the one she had used six years ago, and which occasionally reappeared when she became lost in the past.
“Lori—what she was like. I didn’t see her often, only once a month about, and in the winter usually only at Midwinter. She was always—practical,” she decided, eyes focused inwards. “She felt sorry for how the village acted to me, but knew there was nothing to be done for it, so she always said that I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself; that I had Ma, Granda, and her and Rand, and my knack with animals and the bow, and that was more’n most folk had. I couldn’t always talk to Ma—not because she wouldn’t understand,” she rushed to add, gazing earnestly at him, “but because, well, it seemed wrong to talk about the way folk acted to me when she was treated the same—worse, even, as I’m just a bastard, and she’s the one who bore one. But Lori—she didn’t pity, just told me to buck up.”
“A wise woman,” he murmured, taking her hand and rubbing her fingers, urging her on and comforting at the same time.
“She knew about Da. Oh, not specifically,” Daine added at his surprised expression. “She told me, just now, that she knew Ma, knew her sense of honor. Not honor as others, like Rikar and the villagers see it, but her personal sense of it; and that Ma wouldn’t have ended carrying a babe unless she loved the da. Lori figured that since Ma didn’t marry, my da was a visiting noble, or a traveler—my coloring made it logically, since I don’t look like any of the folk from around here, not even Ma.”
Numair smiled, reaching out with his free hand to twist a chestnut curl around his finger. “I’ve always preferred brunettes.”
She scowled at him. “Liar—blondes have always been your taste—tall, buxom ones, at that.”
He shrugged, knowing that, while it was true, she was teasing and no longer insecure about his past interests. “I’ve become more discerning in my old age.”
Daine snorted. “No, just mad.”
He smiled again, and stroked the curl he held. “How did Lori conclude your father was a god?”
“Ma let slip that she saw him occasionally, and Lori thought that meant Da was either a noble or a noble’s man who stayed at Boarder’s Peak Keep, maybe even one who was already married, and that was why they didn’t wed. But on my third birthday, Ma said how it was too bad I was born a day early—if I’d been born on Imbolc, Da might’ve come to my birth and naming. Lori’s not educated, but she’s clever, and she’s a mind like a trap—nothing gets out. She remembered that lesser gods, unless it’s to do specifically with whatever they rule over, can’t travel freely in the human realms except on the festival days.”
“And she never spoke of it the Sarra? Never tried to find out for certain?”
Daine shook her head. “Lori’s a code of honor, as well, and it includes not prying. If Ma had told her of it, that would’ve been fine, but she’d never ask.”
“Did you tell her about Weiryn?”
“And Ma—I didn’t say she’s the Green Lady, just that she lives in the Divine Realms with Da instead of the Black God’s realm.” Daine looked up at him with a playful grin. “I told her about all I’ve been up to since leaving—she didn’t know whether to be proud, horrified, or swear I was lying.”
“She went with proud, I see.”
The grin faded and Daine nodded, a dazed—and slightly awed—look in her eye. “She was.”
Numair smiled gently. “You can’t be that surprised, magelet.”
Daine shifted restlessly, forcing him to release her so she could pace the narrow room. Five steps from the door to the window, five steps back; she covered them over and over. “I—everything got lost in Ma’s death—sometimes, it seemed like that was really all that had happened in my life before Tortall. The memories I actually held on to were either of her—which I tried to block out, since they circled back to her dying—or of dealing with the People. I didn’t even really remember what the village folk were like, just generally how they thought of me. Lori—I s’ppose she got lost, too, since most of my memories of her are linked to Ma, and I didn’t dwell on those.” Finally, she paused, some of her anxious tension fading. “It’s good to remember. There were good times, ones without Ma and Cloud. Lori had another babe, you know,” she added quietly. “Three years ago. Her name is Sarra Randsri.”
Understanding her, Numair took the one step that brought him to her, wrapping her tightly in his arms. Her own came around his waist, her hands clutching at his shirt. “I’m sure your mother knows—she is a goddess, after all.”
Her cheek slid against his chest as she nodded, but remained silent.
“Snowsdale might have tried to outcast her, sweet, but in doing so they’ve burned her into their memories. Rikar will never forget the woman who saw through his preaching to his want of power. Hakkon will never forget the woman who refused him, or Nonia the woman whose place she assumed and tries to live up to. No one here will forget her—and Lori assured that she’ll live on, even if she wasn’t already an immortal goddess.”
He felt her pause, think, before she sighed. “I know she’s well, and that I get to see her—this just brought back how it felt to lose her. Thank you.” She pressed her nose into his shirt, inhaling once, before looking up at him. “Why do you always know the right thing to say?”
Numair assumed a haughty, superior expression, earning a giggle. “Years of deep and careful thought and study, in-depth knowledge of human nature, and a glib and silver tongue.”
She laughed harder, reaching up to draw his face down as she rose to her toes. The kiss was playful on the surface, but faded into a sweet exploration.
Eventually he drew back, breathing a little faster. “Daine?”
She grinned at him. “I don’t know about you, love, but I’ve had a long day—I think it’s time to turn in, don’t you?”
His sweeping her into his arms and, from there, to the bed, was answer enough.
Daine curled up at Numair’s side, her head in the hollow of his shoulders, his arm wrapped firmly around her, fingers tangled in the ends of her hair. The scent of his skin, and of their lovemaking, surrounded her as much as his warmth did, and she nearly purred with repletion and contentment.
“How did it go today?”
He knew he far too well; had seen that her thoughts had been spinning when she’d returned.
“It went well.”
She smoothed her fingertips over his chest as she thought, trying to put her realization into words. “I—I realized Snowsdale—that Galla —isn’t home.” He stirred in question and she rushed on. “I know Tortall is my home now, but that’s in my head—some part of my still believed this was home. But now—I was never welcome here, in the village; Snowsdale was never home. My place was in Ma’s house, and in the woods and hills. Today, well the house is gone completely, and all the places I used to wander aren’t really familiar any more. I recognize landmarks, but it doesn’t feel like my home territory anymore, not the way the barracks, the Royal Forest, Pirate’s Swoop and the tower feel. Even the People here aren’t the same ones I knew, now that the pack is gone. It feels—like a place I’ve traveled through, or visited. Recognizable, not familiar.”
There was—peace—in that, she realized; that those last emotional ties had faded in the face of reality. She no longer saw things here through the memories of a child, but through the eyes of a woman, much as she had come to see Rikar that morning. Quietly, she told Numair so, and felt him smile.
“You’re glad we came, then?”
“Yes. I can move on now.”
“When we get back to Corus, Jon promised us some time off, after the harvest.”
She looked up at him. “Really?”
“Three weeks, at the very least. Would you like to go somewhere?”
“The tower,” she replied without hesitation. “I just want to be with you, without interruptions.”
He shifted abruptly, so they lay on their sides, facing each other, his arm still wrapped around her waist, and kissed her softly. When he drew back, he grinned. “Except for the whales, of course.”
“And dolphins—whales and dolphins aren’t interruptions, Numair. Besides, you like them too.”
“I like that speaking with them makes you happy.”
Daine smiled, sliding a hand into his dark locks, tangled and loose now. “ You make me happy.”
“Are you scouting in the morning?”
Startled by the abrupt change in subject, she furrowed her brow. “Ah—no, I’m helping Buri with the town perimeter. Why?”
“Because if you don’t have to scout, sweet,” he said with a slow, teasing smile—accompanied by not-so-slow, teasing hands—“then we can sleep in a bit in the morning. And that means,” he shifted again, placing her under him, surrounded by his warm strength, “that we can stay up late.”
Daine’s eyes closed as he set about demonstrating his intentions, with which she was perfectly happy to comply.
This time, she did purr.
“You’re worse than a king stallion,” she grumbled, dragging her shirt over her head. They were late—and not from sleeping in. “And they have an entire herd to service.”
“Complaints, magelet?” Numair chuckled, lacing his own shirt.
She scowled at him for a moment, hopping as she struggled into breeches, then grinned as her good mood once again buoyed her. “No more than a mare in a herd of one would have with such undivided ‘attention’.”
He raised a brow at her. “Your analogies, and vocabulary, when it comes to certain aspects of our relationship never cease to fascinate me, magelet.”
“You knew exactly what you were getting into with me—it’s your own fault.”
“I’ll try to bear up under the terrible strain,” he drawled.
“You’ve managed so far.”
He gave in and laughed. “You are terrible, sweet.”
“Never.” He caught her close and swept her into a lingering kiss. They began to lose themselves, until a sharp whistle from Kitten had them jumping apart.
“As much as it pains me, thank you Kitten,” Numair said with a sigh.
“Buri’s already going to kill us.”
Numair squeezed her hand, stroking her palm with his thumb as he was prone to do. “You go down first, sweet. I’ll follow in a moment.”
She nodded, not happy with the necessity, but aware that this was not the Palace, which had had nearly a year to adjust to their relationship. She had no desire to open herself or Numair up to the scrutiny and criticism of Snowsdale, certainly not anymore than she already was.
“Don’t be long; I need you to help draw Buri’s wrath.”
As it turned out, Buri wasn’t angry. When Daine trotted down the stairs a few minutes later, she received a wry stare, followed by a chuckle. Try to be on time from now on, Daine.”
“Tell him that,” she muttered so that only Buri could hear her.
“Oh, I will—but I doubt it was entirely his doing.” Daine ducked her head, hiding a blush.
They waited long enough for Buri to direct a pointed stare at Numair—who returned the look innocently and headed off to resume his discussions with Cedwin and Marcus—before leaving the inn. Outside, the square was a bustling with activity, alive with sounds and scents and people. Market Day.
“Horse lords, this complicates things,” Buri sighed.
“You won’t be able to train any of the villagers today—everyone here has tasks, and then has to get their goods and money home,” Daine said simply. “Even bandits don’t distract form Market Day unless they ride through the middle of the square.”
“Evin’s group is already out, trapping the perimeter of the village and that track they found yesterday, and Lena’s group is scouting. The Own were to help us today, but—”
“They’d be better off with the Riders.” Daine sighed, watching the chaos. “I can’t believe I forgot what day it was—I’m sorry, Buri.”
“Don’t fret. Alright then, you, Raoul and I will stick with our escorts today—Marcus and Conrik have been chomping at the bit for details on the Riders and their training.”
Daine nodded. “Could we do it at the camp? I can’t bear staying in the inn all day—and it’ll get busy at midday and supper.”
Buri nodded, “Goddess yes, if I have to spend one more day in that room…” she trailed off. “You head to the camp, I’ll fetch the others.” She arched a brow at Daine. “Cedwin will likely come too—he’s been itching to talk to you.”
“I’m sure,” she sighed.
Daine headed across the square, going mostly unnoticed amid the noise and movement, until she felt a tap on her shoulder, Turning, she came face-to—face with Lori and a young man a few years younger than herself and at least three inches taller.
“Good morrow, Daine.”
“Good morrow, Lori—Great Goddess, Cory?
She stared at the youth, who had a blend of Lori’s nose and forehead and Rand’s blunter features and strong jaw. He was three years younger than she and had been, the last time she’d seen him, a slightly husky boy with a shy nature. Now he was taller, his former build transforming into stockiness and muscle, while his curly pale blonde hair was drawn into a short horsetail at the back of his neck. In his blue eyes, which met hers squarely there was only a touch of his childhood shyness.
“Daine.” He nodded in polite greeting, then stepped forward eagerly, an excited grin crossing his face. “Are you really one of the Riders?”
“I—no, I’m a civilian advisor to the Riders—I train the horses, and the trainees. Look at you! You’re all grown up!”
His grin turned a bit self-conscious. “So’re you—and you’ve gotten fair pretty, too.”
“I thought you hated girls,” she teased, remembering his solemn declarations that girls were ‘yucky’.
He blushed again, deeper, making Daine grateful she had her da’s coloring rather than Ma’s fair hair and skin. “That was years ago.”
“What are you doing in the village? Your Ma said the that you all don’t come into Snowsdale anymore.”
“Da couldn’t come to fetch Ma, so I did instead—although Ma wants to stay another day. She told me ‘bout you—all your tales! You really live in a Palace? You’ve a dragon? And magic?”
“Yes, yes, and yes.”
Cory drew a deep breath, solemnity returning to his face as he glanced at his mother from the corner of his eye. Daine saw the look and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Daine, Cory’s something to ask you—I knew he was thinking this way for a time, but this morn was the first I heard him talk on it.” Lori reached up, squeezing her eldest shoulder lightly. “You remember that in Galla, unless there’s war, a boy has t’be sponsored by a noble to get in the army—and Lord Brenen only sponsors them that are of his own household.”
Daine saw the way this was going. “Lori, Cory…”
“Tortall don’t do it that way,” Cory leapt in as she sought words. “Anyone can enlist, right?”
“Yes—but only in the infantry, as a foot soldier, and that’s—Cory, Tortall’s recovering from a war, and Scanra’s been testing our borders. It’sdangerous Cory, especially now.”
“Riders don’t need t’be sponsored either,” was all he said. Earnestly.
Daine opened her mouth, then closed it, unable to speak. Her thoughts were spinning, tumbling over themselves, and she spoke the first thought that she was able to grasp. “Cory, it’s not like a tale. Being a Rider is hard, and dangerous, as much so as being in the army. They spend months in the field, depending only on themselves, and fight the worst kinds of folks—there’s no real honor in battle, but bandits are worse than anyone else. At any given time, we’ve a sixth of the Riders on the casualty list, and we lose at least ten a year—out of only a hundred and fifty or so—either to permanent disability, or fatalities. It’s not an adventure,” she finished, putting every drop of sincerity she could in her voice.
He met her eyes, all shyness gone, his face solemn. “I love Ma and Da, Daine. I love them, but I don’t want to be them. You know how things work here—nothing ever changes. Everyone thinks the same, acts the same, talks the same. They live the same life as their folks, and their grandfolks afore them, and their children follow them.” His gaze fired, burning into hers. “I don’t want this life. We’ve no money for an apprenticeship, and I can’t even get in the army here since his lordship won’t sponsor a shepherd’s son. Tortall, and the army or the Riders, is the only path I can take.”
Stability. The stability of life in towns like Snowsdale, where everyone knew where they stood, could be comforting. She remembered vividly how, even after the way she’d been treated here, she’d carried the ideas she’d been taught all her life with her in Tortall for some time. She’d been confused by the lack of defining roles, by people treating her as they did all others, based on her skills and not her position; nobles rubbing elbows with commoners, men and women making their own way outside of their birth and parentage, women wearing breeches and going against the ‘place’ of women as she’d been taught. The ingrained thinking that she’d been taught, that everyone followed blindly in Snowsdale, had been hard to overcome. Stability wasn’t comforting to some, who didn’t fit into their ‘place’, who thought beyond what they were told was right and proper, just as pruning and training plants to grown in a specific way could stunt their growth. She had blossomed away from her niche as ‘Sarra’s bastard’—and it seemed Cory was suffocating in his role.
She looked to Lori and saw fear, grief, worry, but also joy and pride—the face of a mother as her child took his first steps away from her.
“You’ll only be able to get back here once every year—maybe less. You won’t see your family much.”
He swallowed hard with nerves, but there was also a glimmer of hope in his eyes. ‘I know.”
“You turn fifteen at midwinter, right? I know you can ride—though that doesn’t matter—but can you read an write.”
“He can a bit—as much as anyone here can, learning from the priests,” Lori interrupted.
Daine bit her lip. “That’s not enough, but you can learn in Tortall—everyone gets free schooling. You need to be in Corus by the March full moon for training, but you’ll never make it in time if you leave after the snow leaves, and you need to be in Tortall for six months anyway—you might not need sponsoring, but you have to live in the realm for a half-year before you can serve in the army,” she explained. “You can use the time to learn your letters better, and the Riders’ll give you work, and we can always use another pair of hands.” Daine paused, taking a deep breath. “Are you sure , Cory? Absolutely sure?”
“Yes.” She had heard kings and emperors make declarations, knights and nobles pledge oaths and soldiers swear upon their fallen comrades, and the conviction in this young man’s voice was equal to them all.
“I’ll talk to Buri about having you accompany us home. If she refuses—which I doubt, but who knows?—then I send you money for the trip—but you’ll have to leave no later than the first week in October in order to spend a full six months in Tortall before spring training begins.”
“Thank you, Daine!” A boyish grin stretched across his face and he leapt forward to sweep her in a tight hug. Before she could react, he released her, stepping back quickly with a blush staining his face and throat. “Sorry.”
She chuckled. “The encampment is at the east edge of town—tell them I sent you. The Riders are all out in the field, but the Own are there—tell them I said to put you to work.” She grinned. “You’d best get used to working with horses.”
He turned and, with a grin for both herself and his mother tossed over his shoulder, took off through the crowd towards the camp.
“Thank you, Daine.”
“Are you sure you want him to do this?”
Lori fisted her hands in her apron. “Of course not, but he’s nearly and adult now—it’s not my choice to make anymore. If he stays here it’ll be because he’s no other choice; he might be content, but he’ll never be happy. In a year or two he’ll marry, and stay with me’n Rand, or start his own herd—and he’ll smother, slowly, until there’s nothing of Cory left, just a body that makes the motions of living. Some folk are content with what they have; others need to find more, to make their own. Neither type is less than the other, or wrong—just different.” She bit her lip, and Daine saw the shimmer of tears she fought to hold back. “Cory needs something he can’t find here; to forge his own path. Thank you for giving him a chance to do it.”
Daine wrapped her arm around Lori’s waist while the older woman fought back the tears. “I’ll keep an eye on him—but I won’t go easy on him.” She smiled. “I’m not as loud as Sarge or Onua, but I’m just as mean.”
“Good—the meaner you are, tougher you’ll make him.”
“That’s the idea.” Before she could continue, she felt a familiar presence behind her. “Numair,” she said, looking over her should at him.
“Is everything all right, magelet?” he asked with concern.
“Lori’s oldest, Cody, is going to join the Riders.”
“Ah.” He nodded to Lori, who’d gotten control. “He’ll be well looked after, Mistress—when Sarge, Onua, Thayet, and Daine aren’t running him into the ground.”
Lori chuckled lightly, drawing herself up. “Well then, he’ll be too busy for trouble, then.” She smiled at the. “I’d best get back. Don’t forget, Daine—Cory and I’ll be home by tomorrow, and I expect you for dinner some time. And you, Master Salmalin, if you can manage. Blessings on you,” she added.
“And you.” Daine and Numair watched Lori disappear into the crowd.
“Will her son make it in the Riders?”
“He’s got both Rand’s stubbornness and Lori’s steadiness—he’ll make it.” She sighed. “I just have to hope he doesn’t get himself killed.”
“He’ll have good trainers.”
“Hmmm. Where’s Buri?” she asked, deciding to leave future worries in the future.
“She went ahead with our Gallan friends. We’d best be off, sweet.”
“Earn our pay, at least.” With a smile for him she lead the way to the camp.
Despite Market Day disrupting their plans, it was a productive day. Evin and his men had laid in traps, snares and tripwires along the suspicious paths they had found the day before, as well as along the routes that the bandits had been known to use. All of the traps were two miles out from the town, protecting the village folk from unwittingly stumbling into one. Lena’s group returned at sundown, carrying maps that expanded the ones already made by another three miles in radius, extending all the way to the edge of Greenwald village. Cedwin had asked so many questions and wanted so many demonstrations of her magic that Daine felt the drain of exhaustion tugging at her, telling her she was edging close to the end of her reserves—aided, undoubtedly, by healing a golden eagle whose badly damaged wing had drawn her. The mage had been fascinated by the process, and was only distracted from further questions by Numair beginning a discussion on the nature of Wild Magic and its possible connection to Bazhir magic and the Doi fortune-telling gifts. Marcus fairly bounced around the camp, eagerly asking questions—but the sharp, measuring look in his eyes prevented his energy from being child-like. He obviously paid close attention, and likely got more details on the working of the Riders and the Own than they intended to give—but Raoul managed to slip a few bits of information from him in return, including details of the activities just beyond the Scanra border—not directly important to the mission, but interesting nonetheless, as Scanra was a long-standing and common enemy for both realms. Marcus had spent a few minutes blinking distractedly at Raoul when he realized that he had been outfoxed at his own game, before finally giving in and giving the knight a jaunty salute—and then bouncing off once again to corner a hapless Rider.
The low point of the day came at night when, after having returned to the inn and thoroughly dissecting all the information gathered and all the possible courses of action, Vanel returned to the village and inn. He was sullen and, very unattractively, sulky, obviously not being there by choice. He ordered a meal and ale, and then complained bitterly about the service and the inferiority of the fare, sending the innkeeper into spasms of both fear and indignation—fear because this was the lord’s son and heir, and indignation because the food was of good, if somewhat simple, quality and his ale superior. He stared at Lena unpleasantly until she drew one of her many daggers and began honing it—slowly, and with great fanfare—and then his features took on an expression of distain and disgust over thinly veiled hostility that it shattered any semblance of handsomeness in his face. After waiting just long enough to make her point, Lena retired, followed closely by Numair and Daine, who were reluctant to spend any time in the company of Lord Vanel when they could be alone, together.
Daine wrapped herself in one of Numair’s shirts—why use a shift when his shirt covered just as much and carried the soap-and-spice scent that was only his?—and crawled in between the blankets of his bed. Kitten was once again curled up in the basket in Daine’s chambers, thoroughly worn out from being examined by Cedwin and romping among the camp all day, leaving one less distraction for Daine. She watched him, her head cradled the pillow she had hugged to herself, while he changed into a pair of the loose, undyed breeches he often wore either instead of or with a nightshirt and set the shielding spell on his own door and hers. When he did come to bed, she released the pillow and cuddled against him instead.
He chuckled. “For all your affinity with wolves and horses, you are very kittenish.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “’Kittenish’? Is that really a word?”
“If it isn’t, it should be. Not, of course, that I’m complaining,” he added, wrapping his arm more firmly around her waist, his other hand going to her hair, burying into the thick strands.
“You’re not exactly stand-offish yourself,” she muttered, turning her head to rub her nose against his chest, smiling at the feel of his chest hair tickling her face. “But I‘m not complaining either.”
“Good.” He stroked her hip and her curls gently, lulling both himself and her with the contact until Daine was half-asleep, her thoughts floaty and disconnected. When he spoke, she heard him though a fog of exhaustion, warmth and the absently sensual pleasure that his hands brought her. “I’ll be glad when this is finished and we can return home. It’s been far too long since we had any real time alone.”
“Mmmph,” she managed to agree, drawing a low chuckle from Numair that rumbled in his chest, under her cheek. She felt him looking at her and tried, valiantly, to lift her head, but managed only to shift slightly, enough to meet his amused gaze with her sleepy one. His dark eyes, always expressive, turned tender and he smiled gently.
“My tired magelet,” he murmured, his voice stroking over her skin much as his hands did. “You’re worn out, sweet.”
“‘M not,” she slurred.
“Liar. Sleep, love. We’ve work to do tomorrow—the faster we complete it, the sooner we go home.”
She meant to protest, or agree—she wasn’t sure, or even certain on what she was agreeing to or protesting—but the hand that had been toying with her hair went to the back of her neck and stroked her nape gently in a move that made every one of her muscles melt and her muddled thoughts evaporate. She saw him gesture briefly before her eyes fell shut, and the room went dark as the candles were extinguished, and felt a light butterfly kiss against her brow before dropping head-first into the depths of sleep.
Under the night sky, every rustle, every moving leaf, twig, and insect, each scampering step made by creatures which lived and foraged during the darkness, was a distinct sound as loud as the crack of wood. Each noise had a direction and a cause—there, to the left in the pine, a beetle chewed steadily on the woody flesh. Down, to the right, twenty wing-lengths from the base of this perch, a marten slipped out of its den. And—THERE!
Wings opened fully with a single twitch of muscles, and powerful talons clenched, released, and pushed off of the branch they grasped. The owl dropped, falling into a steep glide. Three wing-lengths, two, one— crunch . A deer mouse, having ventured out for its meal, became one, its neck and skull crushed in the owl’s grasp.
Four powerful wing beats carried the Ni’hul to the sturdy branch of another tree where she settled, pleased, with her night’s first catch. It wouldn’t be the last, certainly, but was a reasonable start. The mouse went down easily, and she fluffed her feathers up around her while she waited, both for the next telltale sound and for her first meal to settle in her crop.
Sound filled the air, angry stomping and crashing, growing closer. The weasel Ni’hul was listening to shot off into the undergrowth. Several bats shot past her, calling a warning, despite their natural dislike of her kind. Angrily, she fluffed herself up, twisting her head, trying to catch a glimpse of the intruders. This was her territory, and they were disturbing her hunt. The sounds came closer, some familiar, some not; the strike of hooves on earth, the breathing of heavy grazers, and the shrill sound of voices. Of course—two-leggers.
Ni’hul watched from her perch as they marched through her hunting ground, uncaring that they were disturbing the prey. The shiny bits and strange feathers that two-leggers wore rustled and clinked in the still air, causing her to pull her head to her chest. They were loud , though they seemed to be making an attempt at stealth. She shook her feathers out in distain. Two-leggers knew nothing of stealth, or of respecting the People’s hunting rights. Even the bats acknowledged this as her territory, and flew softly around her. Whatever they were doing here in the night, she wanted them gone .
Daine woke with a start, the heavy feel of a mouse still in her throat, the ring of harnesses in her ears. She wasn’t out in the night, hunting, but still wrapped warmly in Numair’s arms. Rapidly, she tried to sort out the images and sounds that jumbled in her mind, fixing on the direction they had come from. Sending her mind out, she sought the owl whose mind she had inhabited in sleep, thins time by conscious choice.
A quarter mark later, she came back to herself, feeling sweat beading her brow from the effort. Ni’hul was on the barest edge of her range, and she had already worn herself out that day. Two hours was not enough sleep to recover—unfortunately, it was all she would get.
“Daine? What’s wrong?”
She should have known he would sense her restlessness. She spared a moment to smile at him before sitting up—still in his embrace, as his arms remained around her waist. “We need to get dressed—there’s trouble.”
Daine had beaten Numair out of the chamber, making it to Buri’s room quickly and banging her fist on the door three times. She waited ten heartbeats, long enough for Numair to reach her, before repeating the pattern. Still, she didn’t hear anyone stirring in the room.
She was about to ask Numair if her could get the door open—he was, oddly enough, an adept lock-pick—when the door across the hall swung open. They both turned, expecting to find Raoul—and came face-to-face with Buri, in a very large man’s shirt. “Daine? Numair? What is it?”
Daine blinked at her friend once, twice, and then a third time, as Numair began to chuckle. Buri looked at them oddly, until Numair spoke up. “Apparently, sweet, we aren’t the only ones capable of keeping certain types of secrets.”
It was Buri’s turn to blink, then blush—actually blush , something Daine was certain she had been incapable of doing—as she realized that the door she had answered was not her own. Just when Numair had controlled his chuckle, Buri her flush, and Daine’s astonishment had transformed into amusement, Raoul’s substantial form came to fill the doorway behind the K’mir.
He saw the situation and sighed lightly. “Numair? Daine?”
“We will definitely talk later, Buri,” Daine smiled, then turned solemn. “There’s raiders on the mountain trail we found.”
Buri went from a slightly embarrassed lover to an intent commander in a heartbeat, exuding authority even in an oversized shirt and nothing else. “Report.”
“There’s thirty, all mounted, in two separate groups. They’re going to reach the base of the trail in less than two candlemarks. They’re scouts,” she went on, stepping forward, wanting to make her point. A plan had been forming in her mind, and she wanted Buri to see it. “I talked to the horses, and listened to a conversation between the bandits. They’ll split up when the leave the path, and scout the entire region, looking for anything worth stealing—goods, food, women—and to see when the spring fairs are, so they can hit people coming and going. They’ve done it before; the horses remembered doing this a month ago—just before the last strike by the bandits. They aren’t expected back for at least a week, Buri. This is a chance—we can take these raiders out quickly, then follow the trail back to their camp. We’d cut their numbers in half, and we’d have a week to plan an ambush on the camp. We could keep civilians out of it entirely, without letting the bandits threaten the villages and farmers hereabouts.”
There was a desperation in her voice that had Numair wrapping his arm tightly around her shoulders, and Buri looking at her with compassion and understanding showing through her commander’s mask. Raoul met her gaze calmly, only a trace of sympathy in his face. “Daine, you know we’ll take any reasonable course that will let us capture the bandits with the least threat to ourselves and our civilian charges.”
“And, if this opportunity is reasonable, and presents a good chance to even the odds in our favor, then we’ll take it—after due consideration, planning, and after we’ve gathered all the information we can,” Buri added. “We need Lena and Evin to rouse the camp—quietly, with no fires—and we’ll need you to either shapeshift and scout, or ‘listen in’ to the bandit’s animals. We’ll meet you at the camp in a quartermark,” she told Daine, meeting her eyes squarely.
Daine saw understanding in that gaze, and a steely command. She felt the rising panic and desperation, the fear of seeing the same scene that had confronted her one dawn six years ago, fading. She had seen the destruction wrote by raiders and bandits many times in the last years, not to mention the ravages of war, but nothing had brought back to her mind the images of her dead family the way even the thought of farms and cottages near Snowsdale being attacked did. She might hate the people here, but she didn’t want them to suffer that—or the relieve the similarities to her own tragedy.
“Of course—we’ll see you there,” she murmured, meeting Buri’s eyes, trying to say with only her gaze that she would be calm, responsible, a Rider—not a frightened, impulsive girl. Buri must have seen what she wanted her to, because the older woman nodded once, firmly, a light smile touching her lips, before turning back in the doorway—of Raoul’s room—obviously intending to get dressed.
“Make sure the camp stays dark—and don’t wake the town. The last thing we need is to be tripping over panicked civilians.” With that tart order, the door swung closed.
Daine felt Numair draw her close. “Magelet.”
“I’m fine, love—I just had a moment of, well, memories coming back.” She turned her head, letting him see that she was alright. He searched her face intently, relaxing slightly after a few moments, seeing what Buri had. He didn’t release his hold on her, however, and for that she was grateful. “Come on—we’d better get Lena and Evin and get to the camp. I don’t want to have to face Buri if we haven’t followed her orders.”
“especially not with Raoul glowering from behind her—a formidable combination,” he murmured with an arched brow, his eyes on the closed door. “Very interesting.”
“ That is definitely going to be an interesting story,” she agreed. “We’ll have to get it from them later.” With that, she turned towards Lena’s room. Mundane matters—bandits, bloodshed, and battle tactics—would have to take precedence over her friend’s romance. For now, at least.
“Alright then,” Buri concluded, “our best night scouts—that’s you six,” She nodded at a small cluster of Riders, “will track and observe the bandit parties from the base of the mountain path until false dawn. At that point, they’ll draw back to where the attack parties will be waiting for their reports. The Group commanders, Sir Raoul, and myself, will confer to make sure that nothing important has come up as a result of the scout’s intelligence that will make our attack unwise. Barring disaster, we’ll strike at dawn.”
“The Own will remain behind, along with Rider Quint, who is acting as our healer,” Raoul added. Quint, a whip-thin man with white-blonde hair, sighed lightly but waved his ascent. “We can’t be sure that the scouting parties won’t be greedy and make for the village, and we can’t leave Snowsdale undefended. Rahim,” he looked to a tall, solemn-eye Bazhir, “commands the Own in my absence as I will be joining the 7 th Group while Commander Buri goes with the 5 th .”
“Any questions?” Buri asked, looking around at the entire company.
They were seated in a large half-circle facing Buri and Raoul. Daine was sitting with the Riders now, but she had been standing with the commanders while giving her report to the whole company. There were only two lanterns for light, and only that much because the heavy material of the command tent was thick enough and dark enough to block the light from shinning through and being visible from any distance.
“Are we sure the scouts won’t be missed by the main party?” One of the Riders asked. “What if they use messenger birds or spell to check in with their camp?”
“They’re bandits , Soren, not soldiers, another Rider reminded him. “If they thought of those kinds of things, they wouldn’t have turned to raiding.”
”No, Clare, he’s got a point—the reason our help was requested was because of how organized these bandits seem,” Buri reminded them. “How many raiders think to scout their targets repeatedly—or have the numbers to send out thirty men as scouts? Daine and the other scouts will try to find out if there’s any communication between these parties and the camp. If there is, we’ll reconsider. Anything else?”
There were a few inquiries, but not many. Buri and Raoul were very thorough in their briefings, and everyone who was present was a veteran of at least two years, who could understand not only their orders but also the entire situation quickly. It was not long after midnight when the scouts slipped out of the camp, heading in the directions of the scouting groups, whose locations Diane had pinpointed.
The rest of the Riders were ordered to get a brief two hours sleep before they rode out. Only the commanders and mages, along with the Own’s watch remained awake. While Raoul, Buri, Lena, and Evin went over their plans, Daine settled into a corner of the command tent and meditated, falling deep into her magic and sending her thoughts out, into the night.
Hours later, as the northern forest lightened imperceptibly with the still far-off dawn, Daine hunched her shoulders further in an attempt to ward off the chill. This early in spring, the nights held an almost winter-like chill; indeed, winter was barely past and snows could return even into May or early June, while the mountains never lost their snowy blankets. The 7 th Group was bundled up well against the cool, keeping their horses close together and sharing the warmth that the huge animals generated. They spoke only in low tones, which the pine forest absorbed easily. Only an expert hunter and tracker would know they were there, even from as close a distance as a hundred yards.
“Are you alright?” Buri murmured from her left.
“Hmmm?” Daine responded, shaking off her stupor. “Oh—yes, I’m fair.”
“Your grammar slips when you’re exhausted,” her friend pointed out. “Numair said to keep an eye on you—I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how far you’d drained yourself.”
“I’ll be fine,” she shrugged. “I don’t need to shapeshift unless this all goes to hell, and some uninterrupted sleep will set me to rights. Numair shouldn’t have worried you.”
“He’s not here to keep an eye on you, so he wanted to make sure someone did.” Buri eyed her sternly, and even without taking cat’s eyes, Daine knew the Commanders expression that she would be wearing. “When we’ve finished here, you are going straight to the inn and your bed. We’ll manage without you for a few hours.”
“You need to find out where the bandit’s camp is,” she objected.
“That can wait until tonight, or tomorrow. You’re no go to us if you drop. You’re for bed, miss.”
Daine sighed, knowing she wouldn’t win the argument had she even been inclined to fight. Right now, ten candlemarks of sleep, in a warm bed, sounded as close to the Blessed Fields as possible. Her session of watching and listening to the bandits, both parties, as they had split up as soon as they reached the end of the trail out of the mountains, had taken her down to the dregs of her resources, magically speaking. At least they knew for sure that there was no communication between the scouts and the main bandit party—several of the men did not like being sent out in the cold, having to spend a week making cold camps with little comforts, and had been very vocal in their complaints and allowing her to learn quite a bit about the raiders. Raoul had gone with Lena and the 5 th to follow the party that had gone southwest, while Buri, Daine, and the 7 th were set on the part heading to the northeast, skirting above Snowsdale and Rockvale. At this point, Daine was useful only as an archer, as even reaching the mile or so to their target’s animals was taxing.
“Speaking of bed,” Daine began, turning to her friend, even though the night’s shadows were too deep to see through, “I think you had best start explaining. Secrets, Buri?”
She could practically feel Buri blush. “That’s pot crying ‘black’ to the kettle, Daine.”
“You know, last year when Numair and I came out in the open, it wasn’t our relationship that upset or surprised our friends so much as it was the fact that we kept it a secret—and that we’d managed to keep in a secret. Except for you and Raoul—you didn’t seem that amazed that we’d done it. I wonder why?”
“Hmmm,” was Buri’s noncommittal reply.
“So, I’ve been thinking, mayhaps you weren’t shocked at the ability to keep a relationship a secret because you’ve so practice doing so.”
Daine sighed. It was fun to tease Buri, but she mostly wanted to know the truth, so she decided to stop tormenting her friend—for now, anyway.
“How long, Buri?”
There was a long, hesitant pause—not at all like the straightforward, bluntly confident woman Daine knew. “Three years.”
“Three—Bright Lady! That was the year before the war!” Daine felt slightly dazed—though she remembered to control her voice—and wondered if this was how her friends had felt when she and Numair had revealed themselves. Had Raoul and Buri really been together for three years? “I never would have guessed.”
“That was rather the point, Daine,” was the dry reply.
She shook off her surprise, more determined than ever for facts. “Let’s have it, then. How did you—?”
“We got back to Corus from separate missions at the same time, and didn’t want to put up with the nonsense of Court, so we went to his rooms for a drink.”
“How did that—oh,” she cut herself off, realizing what that meant. Buri and Raoul had gotten foxed, and, being conveniently close to a bed, had fallen into it. “And you just, fell into a relationship?”
“No, we fell into bed. I was—attracted—before, and he claims the same—though I’m a little doubtful, as I’m not much to look at—”
“Don’t be ridiculous—you certainly aren’t a Court beauty, but you’re fair pretty if anyone’s a mind to look properly.”
Buri chuckled lightly. “Why, Daine, I never knew—all this time, you’ve carried a torch for me?”
“That won’t work, Buri; I live with Numair —it’ll take more than that to embarrass me.”
Her friend sighed. “Damn. Well, you know how alcohol works—it loosened both our tongues, and we ended up together. The next morning…” Buri paused, thinking, remembering. “Well, we’d scared ourselves, for any number of reasons, starting with how we were friends , ending with that we’re both confirmed bachelors for various personal reasons—and in the middle, along with several other worries, is the fact that he’s the Lord of Goldenlake ad Malorie’s Peak and I’m just a K’mir warrior. So we pretended it never happened and avoided each other.”
“Not forever, obviously.”
“No. I—well, I missed him. As a friend, at least. Raoul was the second person from Tortall that I met—Alanna was the first, and she brought Thayet and me here after she found the Dominion Jewel. Raoul came to meet Alanna on the way, because Jon needed her. He irritated me, and he obviously didn’t know what to make of me; I was young—younger than Alanna by a bit, in fact—and still shocked from the loss of my family and Thayet’s mother and the civil war in Sarain, so I was very prickly and difficult—you laugh now , but I was worse then,” she added at Daine’s chuckle. ‘Prickly’ and ‘difficult’—as well as ‘stubborn’, ‘bullheaded’, and ‘blunt’—were very accurate descriptions of Buri at any time, and she didn’t usually have a recent civil war as a reason. “He seemed to understand that I was very shaken, and was kind to me, without being patronizing—though he still irritated me on principle. This big, brawny man, with rank and wealth, born to privilege—he drove me mad. But Alanna obviously loved him, as a friend, and they were very close. I trusted her judgment, and she told me stories about him, and we became friends. He was one of my only ones for a long time, when I was focused on helping Thayet make a place in Tortall.”
“And you missed being able to talk to him.” There was no question in Daine’s voice, because she knew it to be truth.
“And argue with him, and train, and grumble about politics and Court, and about the strain of being Commander—yes, I missed him. For months, most of the summer and all of the fall, we just stayed out of each other’s way. If we both hadn’t been so busy, and often away from Corus, everyone would have notice, but we were overrun with work—and then the barriers fell.”
Midwinter’s Night, Daine remembered. ‘When the barriers fell’ had become such a common saying, a prelude to reflections of tremendous change, that it had become the opening line of numerous songs, ballads, and tales. The Collapse had changed all the Eastern lands, bringing a deluge of immortals, more than had been seen in four centuries, and led ultimately to the Immortals War, which had changed everyone’s lives.
“We had to work together, almost constantly, and it made that loss of friendship even worse, because we were together, but not the way we always had been. And then—you remember the hurrok attack at Port Caynn that February?”
“The one where you were injured? You could have lost the arm, if those slashes had gone any deeper.”
“When I got away from the healers, Raoul came to see me. He was—shaken,” Buri murmured, more to her self than Daine. There was a touch of wonder in her voice, as she went from reciting a story to remembering what it was like to fall in love. “He started yelling at me for getting hurt, and it surprised me—and then I got angry and yelled back. I was hurt and tired, and I missed my friend, and he just started shouting , and I lost it. I asked him why in all the realms he’d care if I was hurt, or even dead—I didn’t really mean it, of course—and he just froze. Like I’d laid into him with a blade, not words. I was about to apologize, and throw him out so I could cry in private because I was sure we could never even be friends again, and he stated speaking. He used this tone that I’d never heard before, not in battle or when he was reaming out a foolish soldier, or at any time at Court or on the training grounds. It was so flat, but determined, and absolutely controlled. He said he’d had enough—and I thought he was going to say there was nothing left between us. He said,” Buri paused, and Daine knew she wasn’t in the dark, predawn woods of the Gallan mountains, but in a small bedchamber, hundreds of leagues away in Port Caynn. “He said that he was tired of all of this, of all the worries and hurt, and of trying to forget or pretend; that if we had backtracked to avoid losing our friendship, we’d done a poor job of it, since we hadn’t been friends since that night. And that if he was going to lose his best friend because we made a mistake in going too far, he’d rather that he had a chance to actually make that mistake, and to enjoy what ever he could before it ended. He wasn’t going anywhere, and that I’d have to throw him out, or tell him to go straight to the Black God, to get him to leave. And I couldn’t,” she added. “So he didn’t go anywhere, and we were friends again, and more.”
“Good,” Daine said quietly, pleased and glad, and just a little teary from her friend’s recital. “He’s too stubborn and mean for you to push around, or to put up with you when you get stubborn; and you’re to practical to fall over him the way everyone at Court does, so you’ll stop him from being too dignified or from getting big-headed.”
Buri chuckled. “I suppose—but I’m not stubborn.”
Daine’s disbelieving silence was her answer to that .
The first rays of dawn crept over the mountain peaks, bringing the hazy half-light of the new day to the woods and valleys. Mist crept along the ground, rising above the trees to be burned off by the pale sun. Fourteen indistinct figures rested at the edge of the woods above a shallow vale, blended with mist and shadow. Formless, they seemed neither male nor female, but otherworldly, like the mythic Shadow Hunters, who rode formless steeds shaped from the winds in an eternal hunt through the northern forests. Below them, a half-hazard cold camp lay, men and horses in temporary repose, waiting the dawn and easier travel.
The sun’s face touched the horizon and, in a single moment of perfect silence, the world breathed, lingering in the first beat of the new day. No bird sung or rodent scampered, the earth greeting the dawn.
A cry tore through the mist and shadows, echoing in the silence, shocking all who heard it. It was a shrieking scream, like nothing made by beast, bird, or human, and make shivers run down the spines of all those in the camp. They froze, unable to reach for weapons, as the primal call echoed, trapping them.
With Buri’s K’mir battle cry still in their ears, the Riders sprung their mounts, bursting from shadow into the pale light, blades and bows drawn. Amman, one of the Riders, released a hawk-like cry, the battle call of the Bloody Hawk tribe, followed by cries of ‘Tortall’ and ‘The Queen’s Riders’. By the time the raiders had shaken off tier stupor and scrambled onto their mounts, the Riders were upon them.
It was fast, vicious, and bloody. Most of the blood was the bandit’s, but they fought like desperate men, without rules or mercy. While the Riders were under orders to incapacitate instead of kill when ever possible, their enemy took away their choice by refusing any form of surrender. Even injured, unhorsed, they would continue to fight, forcing Riders to shoot those who went to the ground to protect their comrades from having their mounts killed with daggers, swords—even sticks—to the underside.
Even as the dawn mist evaporated, the Riders were left amid a bloody battlefield, no less terrible for its small size. All fifteen of the raiders were dead, and four Riders were injured, plus three mounts. None were life threatening, but Relan had gash to his scalp that bled profusely, and Kali had a worrisome sword-wound to the leg.
“Damn it,” Evin muttered, looking out over the blood-splattered earth. “They just didn’t give up or give in.”
“In Galla, accused raiders are handed over to the lord’s justice,” Daine said softly, catching the attention of the party. “Any one accused is given a trial—brief, with no magistrate and no appeals—and, if found guilty, is hung at the next sunset. They’re hung, not from scaffolding, which usually breaks the neck, but from a tree, and are levered up in the air with the noose, so that they strangle to death—no exceptions, no second chances, and no death rites. It takes them a while to die,” she reflected quietly, remembering the only such hand she’d even seen when, against her ma’s orders, she’d snuck to the edge of town. She’d been eight, and it had given her nightmares for weeks—and she’d never again chosen to witness an execution.
There was an uneasy silence among the Riders; not regretting that which had been necessary, but reflecting on the fact that, in the face of this information, the mornings events would be repeated the next time they faced the bandits.
Soon, though, duty, training, and reality surfaced, and the troublesome future disappeared into the practicality of the now. Buri spoke with Raoul using the speaking spell, discovering that, while the fifth also had injures, among which included a concussion, broken arm, and two serious blade wounds, and that the bandit party to the south had reacted in a similar fashion to this one, both groups were intact. Then came the particularly unpleasant task of burying the bandits.
A funeral pyre large enough to burn fifteen bodies would be visible for miles, between the flames, smoke, and clear mountain air. There was also the risk of the fire spreading, even using a magical fire and shielding the blaze. Leaving the bodies was unimaginable—this much fresh meat would draw every large predator and scavenger for leagues, leaving the surrounding civilians at risk. The only option was to bury the dead, a dirty, exhausting matter. No matter how well trained, how experienced the Riders were, dealing with the aftermath of battle was gruesome. Daine thanked the gods that there were no Stormwings here; she no longer begrudged them their natures or place in the world, but seeing them in action right now would simply be too much.
It was two groups of weary, bloody, and soiled men and women who returned to the camp just after midday, carrying their wounded and leading the mounts and belongings of the dead raiders to be given to the village and the Lord Holder. Daine had moved beyond exhaustion into a state of physical, mental, and magical numbness that she hadn’t felt in many months. She was slumped over Cloud, unaware of those around her, even of Cory’s shocked, concerned face—only Numair, his eyes dark with concern and his face tight with worry, registered. When he approached her, she reached out a hand to him, which he took, eyes questioning.
“I’m not hurt,” she managed, trying to smile for him—only to see his expression darken a heartbeat before the world went black, and she collapsed into his open arms.
Warning – there is a threat of/attempted rape in this chapter, as well as violence. Please read cautiously if this could trigger you.
There was nothing quiet as difficult as waiting. It was a truth that Numair had come to realize as he got older, one that became only more obvious to him as time went on. The only thing that came close to the stress of waiting while you loved one was in danger was being unable to do anything about it. For all the times that he and Daine were together, where he could guard her back, there was a time when he could do nothing, usually because his particular talents were not useful in whatever battle she was fighting. When those times came, he was relegated to waiting, and praying, and depending on her friends to have her back.
This dawn was especially hard, because not only was she out in the field awaiting a fight, but he was also aware that she was magically exhausted, which stripped away part of her defenses. Even knowing she was surrounded by Riders, fully half of which she had helped train and who would take an arrow for her, his nerves were drawn tight with the strain.
She shouldn’t have been exhausted, he mused. He should have made sure that Cedwin didn’t wear her out with his desire to examine her abilities. He’d been about to interfere, seeing her being to tire, when the eagle’s pain had summoned her. Heal was always taxing with wild magic, and the difficult healing had drained her. Still, she might not have been so tired if not for their location. The mental and physical strain of dealing with past memories, being surrounded by people who, for no logical reason, feared and hated her, also affected her gift by the simple means of sapping her energy needlessly.
So he waited, keeping busy with the Own and, later, explaining the circumstances of the Rider’s absence to their Gallan hosts. He knew that Daine also understood this kind of waiting, for there were many times when he was sent off, either as a delegate and negotiator for the Crown, or when his Gift was needed and hers wasn’t. While being apart certainly made them appreciate each other more, and be thankful for the time they spent together, Numair often wished that it wasn’t necessary. Still, they had pledged themselves to their adopted home and king, and both preferred to have an active role in defending it as opposed to standing by while others did so.
Baron Marcus was extremely put out by the Riders absence, not only wishing that he had been present during the planning of this mission and their future tactics, but believing that he and the other Gallans should have been consulted before the Riders entered a battle with those who were in all likelihood, Gallan citizens. The knights were very practical about the whole matter, willing to allow that Tortallan commanders knew what they were about, but Numair felt compelled to set the baron straight.
“My lord, you seem to have forgotten that your king asked our assistance and expertise in this matter,” he cut through Marcus’s fretting, drawing the attention of the King’s Own who were nearby, tending the camp. “Your people have not the ability to fight these bandits efficiently or effectively, whereas we have been sent across kingdom to do so. And despite this, you are questioning the decision of two of the highest-ranking officers in Tortall, who were hand-picked for this mission?”
Marcus had the grace to look embarrassed, and apologetic, especially when he became aware of the eyes of the Own on him. “I beg your pardon, Master Salmalin, I certainly meant no offence—not to question the abilities of the commanders. I was—well, I was looking forward to witnessing the process, I suppose.”
“I assure you, we are far from finished here. This mornings foray is only part of the effort required to capture all the bandits, and I’m sure you will be given ample input and opportunity to observe Rider tactics and battles.”
“Ah—yes, of course,” he bobbed his head in agreement.
It was only when one of the Own arched an eyebrow at him when he turned away that Numair realized Marcus hadn’t been flustered by his own behaviour, or having it pointed out to him, but by something in Numair’s own tone and expression. He sighed lightly, knowing that his temper was on edge, and made a conscious effort to relax his tense muscles and strained nerves. The time would pass no quicker if he was twisted in knots.
When the Riders returned, he was waiting at the edge of the camp, alerted by the runners sent ahead. The Own and Quint stood by to aid the injured, of whom he was reasonably sure Daine was not among due to the lack of alarm in the horses; the Gallans also stood by, eager to hear what had happened
He vaguely recognized the presence of at least twice as many horses as riders, aware that they were the bandits’ mounts and were intended for the village as restitution for the previous raiding. His mind was fully occupied, however, with scanning the ranks for a small, chestnut-haired woman on a grey pony. He winced with sympathy and concern when he saw her slumped over Cloud’s neck, her face pale and slack, and instantly headed towards her.
Just as she reassured him that she was all right—“I’m not hurt,”—he saw her eyes roll back in her skull. Heart in throat, Numair leapt forward, catching her as she slid from the saddle in a dead faint.
He heard voices, demanding and alarmed, which he ignored as he drew her carefully to his chest, eyes sliding over her face, neck, and chest in a primal reassurance that she was breathing, her heart beating. Cloud stamped her hoof in demand, eyes rolling in mild panic, even as he focused on the pulse in her throat.
“She’s alright,” he managed, his voice sounding hollow over the pounding in his ears. He’d already reached for his Gift and examined his lover—while no Healer, he’d seen that the wellspring of her magic was exhausted, the copper fire a pale trickle. “She’s just drained.”
Quint reached them, having been alerted when the bleeding Rider he’d been examining had knocked him out of his trance and refused to be treated until Daine had been looked at. Numair Saw his pale yellow Gift surround his hands as he laid one on Daine’s forehead. After a few moments, he drew back. “It’s alright; she’s just exhausted and spent. Master Numair, can you get her in bed? Either here or at the inn is fine, but she needs a good twelve candlemarks of rest and quiet.”
Numair nodded, his heart rate settling slightly even though he was still concerned. Who wouldn’t be, when their love collapsed in their arms? He mused.
“Numair, take her back to the inn,” Buri ordered from his elbow, “and make sure she’s settled. We’ll be back as soon as we’ve updated everyone and sent the troops to bed.
He nodded, turning to walk away before realizing something. Looking back over his shoulder, he inquired, “Buri? There’s no prisoners.”
The K’mir looked suddenly very tired. “There were no prisoners to take.”
Understanding, he left the Riders, tired, wounded, weary, to take care of his love.
As he passed beyond the crowd of Riders and Own, a young man stepped in his path. “Is she alright? What’s wrong?” he demanded, eyes flickering over Daine’s prone form.
Numair frowned, not recognizing the boy. “Who are—oh, you’re Lori’s son, correct?”
“Aye, she’s my ma. What happened?”
“She’s exhausted, not injured. Daine reached the end of her gift’s resources.”
He sighed in both relief and concern. “Does she do it often?”
“Often enough. Excuse me,” Numair added, moving to step past him.
“Master Salmalin—you are Master Salmalin, right?” he asked, receiving Numair’s nod. “What happened? I heard—I heard that none of the raiders lived. Is it true?”
Now Numair sighed, lightly, seeing the curiosity, confusion, and disbelief in the boy’s face. He might have been a shepherd’s son, one who grew quickly and understood the world’s harshness, but he’d never witnessed true bloodshed, or battle.
“No, Cory, none of the bandits survived; they refused to surrender, and the Riders had to defend themselves and each other.” The boy swallowed, hard, looking a touch pale. “However bright and wonderful the Riders seem, Cory, however much good they do and honorable they are, in the end they are still soldiers; a soldiers duty is to defend, and to fight, and to kill. This,” he nodded, indicating the camp, the massed ranks of tired and injured, Daine limp in his arms, and the strings of unman horses, “is what being a Rider is.”
The boy’s hands shook lightly, and he looked down at his feet, shoulders hunched in thought. Just as Numair began to move away, he was called back. “Master Numair? D’you need any help?”
Cory held his head up again and, though still pale, his shoulders were straight. Numair saw the determination that had pressed Daine to offer her support in his entering the Riders.
“I can manage, but the Riders could use a hand with the horses—they only had a few hours sleep, and are fairly worn out.”
The boy nodded, once, firmly and, to Numair’s surprise and amusement, looked pointedly at the woman he held against him. “Take good care of Daine, sir.”
He stood a moment longer and watched the boy—no, young man—trot down the rows of tents towards the dismounting Riders. He felt a flutter against his cheek and, drawn from his thoughts, looked down to see that Daine had turned her head slightly, her breath washing against his skin. He shifted her slightly; smiling down at her despite the fact that she had literally run herself ragged, and brushed a light kiss against her brow. He would absolutely take good care of her.
Lena stretched, easing her tired muscles, as she walked beyond the picket line where even the horses dozed. She should really be sleeping; the Own had been given watch for four hours while all the Riders slept, after which the watches would be changed every five hours. Despite the belief that the raiders would remain in their camp and were unaware that their scouts had been ambushed, no one could take the chance that they would not change plans. Snowsdale still need guarding and the trail from the raider’s camp needed to be watched. Unfortunately, Lena was still riding on the edge of the battle fever of the morning: the unbelievable energy and strength that fear or fighting could bring. She was exhausted, but invigorated and edgy, and so had remained at the camp when the other Commanders left for the inn to ease the Gallan and village’s curiosity and find their own beds. The rest of the Riders were resting in their tents, but battle fever tended to hold Lena longer than most—a blessing when she was injured, but not so at times like this.
She was tempted to seek out Rahim, but decided against it for several reasons. The obvious one was that, as commander in Sir Raoul’s steed, he was certainly busy. Her more private concerns were that she would seem like a child or a fool, unable to sleep because of a bad day; and, of course, there was the fact that being in his presence would hardly help her unwind—she was far too aware of him to be relaxed in his company.
She’d met Rahim several times before this journey; they were both assigned to overlapping sectors in the northeast of Tortall, and had met on more than one occasion. Though she wouldn’t admit it, the tall, stocky Bazhir warrior, with his unflappable demeanor, smooth bass voice, and quiet courtesy had always interested her but she’d never had the chance to speak with him for more than a few minutes at a time, and had been able to put him out of her mind when out of sight. The long road to Snowsdale, however, had thrown them together and, while she wouldn’t say that he seemed to seek her out, they did end up in each other’s company fairly often. His views and beliefs interested her, and she’d learned a great deal about the Bazhir from him—not the well-known facts, but the more subtle aspects and ideas of the culture. He had felt that he didn’t belong in the desert with his tribe and, like a number of like-minded young Bazhir in the last few decades, had chosen to serve the Voice of the Tribes, King Jonathan, while still remaining connected to his family and people. Under all that was awareness —she seemed to know when he was close to her, and he appeared to have the same ability, looking up and meeting her eyes to acknowledge her presence. He never smiled in public, but would, in private, give her a slow, teasing half-grin that had left her speechless the first time she’d seen it. She was certain he was at least mildly attracted; she’d known since adolescence that men found her appealing, and she’d often caught him watching her, which he made no apologies for. Still, his gaze never felt invasive and, while he didn’t hide the fact that he appreciated her form, he didn’t stare or make her feel exposed.
When she realized that she was pacing while thinking about her mysterious—friend? comrade? admirer?—Lena forced herself to stop and stretch, as if cooling down after vigorous training, both to distract herself and to try and relax enough to sleep.
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping, Mistress?”
Lena spun, falling into a crouch as she gripped the long knife at her waist in one hand and palmed a throwing dagger with the other. The voice was male and held a hint of a sneer, and was far too close for comfort. Her gaze scanned the shadows, only to meet the handsome yet disdainful features of Lord Vanel of Border’s Peak. He leaned against the trunk of a large tree, standing in such a way that he took up a large part of the narrow game trail that lead back to the picket lines and the camp, blocking it.
Blocking her way back.
She met his gaze and found in it all the distasteful aspects that she had ever seen and felt in a man’s eyes as the stared at her. The shadows gave his face a sinister cast, and she was inclined to believe that what they showed was closer to the truth than what the sunlight displayed.
She remembered distinctly her first impression of him, then one that had led her to avoid any more contact then necessary with him; that he was a man who saw only one aspect to a woman, and who wouldn’t take no as an answer when he sought it. Daine had only confirmed what she’d seen in him. “When he was seventeen, and I was eleven, he raped one of the village girls who went to work at his father’s holding. He had a reputation for bedding the female servants—Lona just denied him. Others would have as well, but they knew what would happen.”
She remembered, too, the response to that revelation; “The women will have to pair up. Make sure they know to stay together, no less than two, or with one of the men, whenever they’re away from the company—even the privy. That’s an order, and I’ll truss either one of you up if you defy it.” Lena inwardly winced, even as she refused to take her eyes of the nobleman before her. Damn it, all she’d wanted was a chance to relax enough to sleep; the Commander was going to kill her.
After she got out of this mess, of course.
“You’re right, my lord,” she agreed calmly as she straightened from her crouch, though she remained balanced on the balls of her feet—and kept her blades in hand. “I need to return to the camp and rest. If you’ll excuse me.” It wasn’t a question, and Lena stepped forward, intending to make him straighten and move out of reflex.
“Perhaps you don’t need to sleep,” he said, his tone implying very well what he thought she did need.
“You’re wrong, my lord, I’m very tired and need to retire.” She kept moving.
When she was just at arms’ reach, his hand snaked out. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
He’d underestimated her; she’d seen his muscles tense in preparation for the move and slid gracefully out of reach, leaving his hand to close around air where her arm had been. His face darkened at her defiance.
“My lord, I don’t have a doubt as to what you want from me,” Lena explained coldly, “but I am a soldier in Their Majesties army, and not a whore or woman of easy virtue. I am tired from defending your kingdom and fief, and intend to go to bed—alone.”
“I know exactly what you are, woman,” he sneered, his use of ‘woman’ sounding like a curse. “You might draw a soldier’s wage, but you aren’t one—just a woman who rides a horse as well as a man.”
There was a gleam in his eye that went beyond lust or covetous; it was greed—for power, for violence—and a sort of madness that chilled her skin. She dropped all pretense of courtesy, knowing she needed to get away from him now .
“Move, now, or I’ll move you myself.”
“Don’t argue with your betters,” he ordered, lunging to seize her wrist. She let him; using the momentum of the yank he gave her limb, she shoved her elbow into his stomach, beneath his ribs. He went pale, then red, as the air was forced from his lungs, and as his grip slackened, wrenched free and went to move past him.
He recovered far more quickly than he should have; despite all his faults, he was still from the northern reaches and mountains, lands endlessly plagued by raiders, Scanran attacks, and harsh winters and requiring training and hunting for defense and survival. She felt hands at her shoulders as she move past him, and even as she tried to duck away from them, was seized and thrown into the unforgiving trunk of the tree her attacker had rested against.
Her left shoulder, arm, and hip struck the tree, scraping painfully as she slid down. It was her turn to gasp for breath, though she managed to keep hold of her dagger. As she turned, needing to keep him in her line of sight, a hand smashed across her face.
Even as pain blossomed in her cheek, light streaking her vision, shock held her immobile. No man had even dared to lay a hand on her; her family had been loving, if somewhat simple, and any man in her village who would have dared to so much as touch her would have faced the fury of her four brothers and her father or, later, Lena herself. She was also a Rider and, therefore, seen as capable of violence and not easy prey or even open to disrespectful advances.
As her vision cleared, she realized that Vanel was now smirking, believing her to be subdued and docile thanks to her passive reaction. She remained limp as his hand reach down, closing over the laces of her shirt, tearing at them even as he groped the flesh beneath.
And drew back with a pained shout, staring in shock at the bloodied furrow in his arm where her knife had sliced flesh. His gaze shot back to hers, going from shocked to enraged as he saw the defiance and disgust in her face.
Lena pushed herself up, still backed against the tree, holding both the dagger from her arm sheath and the long knife from her hip before her. On the blade of the former, blood gleamed darkly. She would not be raped, or forced to submit to this disgusting excuse of a man, noble, and human. She was a Rider, and could defend herself.
A moment later, the distinctive sound of a sword sliding from its sheath rang through the air.
Raoul walked slowly through the camp, aware of the quiet. All but a handful of his Own slept, and most of those awake were away from the camp, working on the town’s defenses and answering the villager’s questions.
He, too, should be in bed—preferably the same one as his lover—getting a few hours of much-needed sleep before the next step that needed to begin. But he had an itch at the back of his neck—the kind that raised the hairs on the back of the neck and had you looking over your shoulder. That itch had stood him in good stead in his twenty-odd years as a knight, usually warning him of danger or, during his time as Knight Commander of the King’s Own, something amiss among his men.
As he reached the far end of the last row of the Rider’s tents, movement caught his eye. Rahim, one of his officers, stood nearby, speaking to the young boy who Daine had sent to the camp to be put to work. The boy turned and pointed to the woods beyond the clearing that held their mounts, and Rahim stiffened slightly, then made a brief gesture of thanks before moving purposefully in the same direction.
“Rahim,” he called out to the younger man, who apparently heard nothing, as he didn’t pause. In fact, he seemed to speed up.
Knowing that his ‘sixth sense’ had likely been right again, Raoul followed his man.
Shit, shit, shit! Lena cursed inwardly. Defending yourself from a swordsman with a dagger was not a pleasant or easy task; when the swordsman was both intent on violating you and at least slightly mad, the job took on epic proportions.
She was bleeding, though no one wound was deep, and aching from her collision with the tree. While she was still alive—no small feat—and had managed to score her own marks, she was also unable to gain any kind of advantage. Vanel might have been a rapist and an amoral bastard, but he wasn’t stupid and he was well trained. He forced her to keep her back to the tree, making sure she couldn’t run, or even gain enough distance to use her throwing daggers. At this range, even if she wasn’t occupied with deflecting his blade and keeping him from closing in on her any further, a thrown blade wouldn’t have enough momentum or speed to do any fatal or incapacitating injury.
Spotting an opening, she lashed out, quick as a snake, with her knife, scoring a reasonable deep gash on the bicep of his sword arm. It didn’t cause him to drop the blade, but she was sure it burned like hellfire.
“Whore,” he hissed, slashing at her upper body. She blocked it, the force of the impact singing in her arms, but knew that the strike was sloppy. He was losing control in his rage. It both weakened him and made him more dangerous—she wasn’t thinking only of rape now, but of killing her.
Taking a chance that cost her a stinging cut to her shoulder, she ducked under his blade and flicked her own across his arm again, only inches away from the last. He let lose a stream of snarled curses and harsh strikes, but each one was sloppier than the last.
In the heartbeat of time that Lena took to blink the sweat from her eyes, the world that she had narrowed down on—her, Vanel, and their blades—changed. There was a surprised shout, a clatter, and the distinctive sound of flesh and bone striking the ground, hard.
Dazed, it took her a moment to absorb the scene before her. Vanel now lay prone on the forest floor, dazed and cradling the wrist of his sword arm, while his blade lay on the ground, well out of his reach. He didn’t look for it, however; he was far too occupied with watching the gleaming sword tip that rested lightly on his chest—directly over his heart.
Rahim watched the noble with an expression that was both fierce and coldly vicious. Like a cat at a mouse hole, he waited for his prey to so much a twitch—was, in fact, eager for him to do so. Lena was sure that, should Vanel move even a fraction, the Bazhir would slid his sword into the man’s heart before he could take another breath. Despite that knowledge, she wasn’t in the least bit intimidated of the man.
“Are you well, Lena,” he asked in his rich voice and fluid accent. Despite his cold expression, his tone was calm, as if he was asking after the weather.
“Well enough, thank you,” she replied before hearing footsteps. Spinning, she had her blades out before her only to find Sir Raoul.
The knight’s gaze flickered over her face and wounds, and then to his soldier and the man sprawled on the ground. His calm expression never faltered.
“Are you seriously injured, Commander Fletcher?”
“No, my lord,” she answered, responding not only to his voiced question but the unasked one, which sought her mental state, not her physical one. “I’m fine.”
“That’s a matter for debate, and we’ll let the healer have the final say in it. Are you planning on actually killing him, Rahim?”
Vanel went pale at the calm, absently curious question, and Lena took great pleasure in his expression even as she could understand his reaction. There was something quite chilling in hearing death mentioned in the same tone that one might use at the dinning table; she imagined it was worse when the death being discussed was your own.
“No, my lord,” Rahim responded. Just as Vanel relaxed, he went on, “that is for Lena to do, should she wish it.”
Lena blinked in surprise even as Vanel’s face darkened in rage. “That damned bi—” Rahim’s sword tip shifted from his chest to Adam’s apple, pressing just enough to make the noble literally swallow his words.
“If you speak to, or about, her again, I will cut out your voice—and tongue,” the Bazhir promised softly.
Lena was confused by Rahim’s declaration—did he really think that it was her right to kill the man? Would he defend her, only to step back and allow her to exact payment? Her injuries were beginning to burn, further distracting her and making it more difficult to think. Sir Raoul must have seen her confused expression because he explained in that same conversational tone. “It was your honor which Vanel attempted to mar. Among the Bazhir your husband, father, or male head of your family would have the right to avenge that, and that would include the right to kill your attacker; if you had no male family, that duty would fall to the headman. In your case, you are an acknowledge warrior in your own right and, therefore, capable of speaking for and defending yourself—and avenging your own honor. If you were unable to do so for some reason, someone close to you could volunteer to act on your behalf—as Rahim seems to be offering.” Rahim made the faintest nod at that, his eyes never leaving Vanel.
“You mean if I walked up to that bastard and slit his throat, or asked Rahim to do it for me, he’d just accept that?”
“He’d see it as perfectly within your right, and would be honored by your trust if you asked him to do so, because you would be offering your own honor into his care. For that matter, I’d understand if you decided to do it.” He smiled gently at her stunned expression. “I’ve been one of the Tribe nearly half my life, Lena—I accept their ways and laws—and Bazhir law is legally valid in Tortall, and therefore to knights. Just as adoptions and marriages in the Bazhir fashion are accepted, duels and punishments under Bazhir law are also legal by the king’s law, as long as they are witnessed. You have two tribesmen to act as your witnesses.”
She turned back to Rahim, watching as he stared, unblinkingly at her attempted rapist, his sword rock-steady. “I’m not Bazhir—why would you give me the honor of Bazhir law?”
“You are a warrior and a woman of great honor, and you serve the Voice, even it is by another name,” came the calm reply. “You are more than deserving of the chance to avenge your honor.”
With that, Lena stepped forward towards the two men—one a warrior, standing tall, and the other quivering, not worthy of the title ‘noble’. Vanel flinched, going sheet-white, eyes locking on the dagger she still held. He would have spoken, she was sure—either to curse her or to plead—but Rahim’s blade prevented him from swallowing deeply, much less speaking.
“Don’t wet yourself, my lord, ” she sneered. “I already have your blood on my blade—I don’t need or wanted it on my hands.” She rested her hand on Rahim’s elbow. “He’s not worth it—I’ve already defended my honor, and my dubious virtue. You don’t need to stain your blade with his blood.”
“He is an insect—a leech.”
She smiled. “Absolutely—and normally I would say that leeched should be burned away. But in this case, trying to feast on my blood made him ill. I’ve already dealt his ego a blow far more painful than death, which is where to strike men like him. I’m just a woman, and I held off not only his advances, but his sword—with only a knife.” She saw that jab hit the mark, and took great pleasure in it. “I won’t soil myself in by giving him more measure than he’s due.”
She felt his arm tense faintly under her hand; however willing he was to allow her to choose and to act on her own behalf, he still wanted justice and vengeance for her. That was something she’d think long and hard about later. Finally he drew his sword tip back fractionally, shifting it to linger for a long moment before stepping back.
Vanel scrambled ungracefully to his feet, backing up several steps as he did so. He looked both frightened and enraged. No longer under immediate threat of a slit throat, pure insult came to coat over both, and he looked as if he were about to start heaping curses upon their heads. AS she braced for whatever came from his mouth, he suddenly went deathly pale—just as Lena realized he’d shifted his gaze beyond them. A heartbeat later, she once again heard steel being unsheathed only to find herself staring in shock as Sir Raoul—cool, unflappable Sir Raoul, who had faced a giant with calm reserve—stalk past them, naked blade in hand. He drove Vanel back into a tree trunk with only the sheer force of his deadly expression.
Once more the young nobleman found himself with steel against his throat—but the man holding this blade was far more deadly.
“Know this, Vanel of Border’s Peak,” Raoul spoke in a sotto voice—and even Lena shivered. “What you have done this day is justification enough for me to cut you down like a rabid dog, or to demand your immediate public execution. Remember my words well, boy: every member of the party from Tortall, man and woman, noble and peasant, Rider, Own, or mage, is a delegate of Tortall, and ambassador here under the specific invitation of your king. To deliberately injure, assault, or harm the delegate of another realm is an act of war against that kingdom, and treason against your own. I am a knight of Tortall, sworn by blade, shield, and blood to defend my kingdom and its citizens. Should you so much as lay a hand on any of those under my command or protection, I will consider it my sworn duty to my realm and rank to kill you where you stand. It is only because Lena defended herself aptly and is deserving of a say in this decision that I don’t do so now—but this is your only warning. Harm any of my people, and you will die for it.”
Lena was frozen by the deadly promise in the knight’s tone—more than his words, it promised swift retribution. Still, she didn’t feel particularly threatened, though she could hardly imagine what someone on the receiving end of that promise would feel—certainly Vanel’s eyes were reeling like a panicked horse’s. When Raoul saw that he’d made his point, he withdrew his sword and sheathed it. “Oh, and Vanel—the villagers and people in the surrounding areas are under the Rider’s and the Own’s protection—and, therefore, mine. Don’t forget it.”
He turned, insulting Vanel by showing him his back and therefore declaring that he was of no threat or consequence. “Let’s go back to camp—Lena, you need a healer.”
“Yes, sir.” Leaving the trembling Vanel still slumped against his tree, they walked back to the camp in silence, Rahim holding her elbow lightly.
When they reached the camp tents, Sir Raoul gestured towards the central one. “Rahim, get Lena to the command tent; I’ll go get Quint.”
Rahim bowed his head in acknowledgment, but Lena turned to face the knight squarely. “Sir Raoul—”
“Don’t argue, Rider, you are having those wounds looked at.”
The stings and throbbing of her injuries certainly agreed. “I wasn’t going to argue, sir; I wanted to apologize.” At his raised eyebrow, she continued. “I didn’t mean to go against orders by going out alone. I forgot about the Commander’s order, but that’s no excuse for a Group Commander. I’m sorry for any difficulty this incident might cause you or Commander Buri, or to the agreements between Tortall and Galla.”
“Relax, Rahim, you don’t have to act as a shield,” Sir Raoul said dryly, making Lena aware that he had stiffened and looked ready to defend her against his leader, and the man who had just reduced a rapist to a trembling heap. She definitely had a lot to think about. “You’re not in trouble, Lena, or about to be punished—though Buri will likely ream you out and make you long for the relative painlessness of latrine duty. The only ‘difficulties’ will be to that leech Vanel once I’ve informed the baron about this. To be honest, I’d even forgotten about the order to pair up—Vanel seemed willing to make himself scarce, and even intended last night to return to his father’s keep. You aren’t at fault—but the next time you want a walk, stay in the village.”
“Yes, sir.” The memory of the attack was fresh in her mind, driving her to speak. “Sir? I don’t think he’s entirely sane. There wasn’t just lust in his eyes, but a need for violence and a—a kind of madness.”
“That doesn’t surprise me; his kind is aroused not by sex, but by power over a victim. It’s not sane, but it’s also not a true insanity because heknows what he’s doing, and he knows what’s right and wrong. He simply believes himself above that distinction. ‘No’ means nothing to him because what others think or feel are beneath his consideration, and are nothing to him when compared to his own desires. He is the only one who matters in his mind—not due to madness, but to an intrinsic selfishness and complete lack of empathy. Go sit down, Lena,” he added briskly, appearing to shake off reflection and distaste, “you look ready to drop. I’ll send Quint to you.”
As he moved off, Rahim took her elbow again. “You need to sit down, especially as Sir Raoul has ordered you to.”
“I wouldn’t want to disobey any more orders today—or make him angry. Great Goddess, that was something to see,” she murmured to herself.
“He does not lose his temper often, but when he does everyone around him feels the weight of it. Come,” he urged.
As he settled her in the tent on a folding stool, taking one for himself as he laid a clean cloth against the sluggishly bleeding wound on her shoulder, she asked one of the questions that circled in her head. “You truly thought I was worthy of the consideration of a tribesman?”
“Of course, for all the reasons that I gave you, and far more. You are a strong woman, Lena, and very capable—but I would have also acted for you had you asked.”
“But only family members are supposed to do that.”
“Or those who have an—interest—in one who is a victim of such a thing.”
His pause and consideration of the right word told her exactly what kind of ‘interest’ he meant—and had. “You said I was a warrior—aren’t women who fight considered to have a man’s soul, and as having given up the interest of women—including marriage and children?”
“Once this was so,” he answered calmly after meeting her gaze for a heartbeat and returning to her wounds. “But when the Woman Who Rides Like A Man, the Lioness, became warrior and shaman for the Bloody Hawk and sat with the men, but also married and proved herself to be wife and mother as well, we accepted that women could be warriors and still with a woman’s soul—though they are rare, as are men like the Man Who Walks In Shadow, who can court and marry such a woman.”
“The Man Who Walks—is that what the Bazhir call the baron? Because he was a thief?”
“Yes, he was named when he was adopted by the Bloody Hawk, so that he could marry the Lioness among the Bazhir.”
“It takes a very strong man to feel confident enough to have any kind of interest in a woman who can defend her own honor,” Lena mused softly, waiting for him to look up at her.
When he did, he met her gaze squarely. “Yes, it does—but the rewards are very great for such a man.”
And Lena, looking into the eyes of a strong man and warrior, smiled faintly, knowing that she had a lot to think about—and that her life was going to get very interesting.
She left sleep behind slowly, reluctantly, her body and at least part of her mind protesting heartily at having to leave the warm cocoon of sleep and dreams. Still, another part of her, the part that held hard-won discipline and dedication and that was trained by battle, pulled her relentlessly from her rest. There were things left unfinished because of her body’s revolt against its harsh treatment; now that she’d regained some of her strength and energy, she could afford to put off further sleep while she took care of her other business.
Her body, however, still ruled. As she managed to drag her eyes open, questions about bandits and injured friends tickled lightly at the back of her mind, but it was the fierce complaint of her stomach that centered her focus. She might have continued sleeping all night despite her concerns, but some needs were far too important to be put off.
Daine stretched idly, taking note of minor aches and the lingering fatigue in her limbs. She definitely needed several more candlemarks of sleep, but by that time her stomach would be irrevocably wrapped around her backbone. Her magic was also recovering, though by no means was it restored to its normal depth. The copper fire of her Gift was still pale and a little thin to her mind’s eye, but it was there, and seemed to be growing stronger even as she watched. A good meal, an update on the day’s events, and more rest would have her dead to rights in no time at all.
As she sat up, she saw that the shutters to the window were open—and a shifting, translucent sheet of white, silver, and black fire covered the opening. The cool mountain breeze brought the scent of pine and snowmelt into the room, and she could see that all but the last rays of the sun were beneath the horizon, but no one could get into her chamber, or even see into it had she not been on the second floor. A light smile touched her lips. Numair was perfectly aware that she often found buildings confining and needed open windows and her People friends to sleep well—or his presence—and had made sure that she would sleep both comfortably and safe from any threat.
A splash of black against white caught her eye; as she turned her head, she saw that it was the black scrawl of familiar handwriting on a sheet of parchment the same color as the pillow it rested on. She snatched it up and read:
I’m hoping you don’t wake before I return as you need the sleep badly, but knowing your contrary nature—particularly when it comes to well-meaning advice—I doubt you’ll manage to do so. Come down to the common room when you’re decent; you need food almost as much as rest. I’m sure you’re eager to know what happened today, and Buri said that she found it doubtful you were even aware of what happened after the battle, you were so exhausted. You can have answers—but only if you eat properly. And, just as a warning, I’m very put out with you—I don’t mind carrying you to bed as often as you like, sweet, but I prefer to do so when you’ve a bit more energy! Having you faint into my arms—and out of a saddle—is a singular experience; it will remain just that— singular —or I will be very upset.
Hurry down, sweet; the sooner you’ve eaten, the sooner you can finish your rest—and get your energy back.
She chuckled lightly, then stroked a finger across the bold-stroked words, sensing the undertones of worry hidden in the teasing lines. He was adept at hiding what he felt, a skill learned through harsh experience—betrayal, exile, and years of struggling to survive. Even with his friends, he found it far too easy to slide into old habits; far too many people believed that, because he was so absentminded when focused on his work, he was somehow unable to wear masks over his thoughts and feelings while the opposite was true—many of his apparent moods were, in fact, careful and instinctive acts to cover his true emotions. Only with her did he not feel any need for illusions; the only time he tried to conceal his feelings was when he felt he was protecting her, and he had already let her so far into his thoughts that she could see straight thorough his attempts to do so. In some ways, that she could know what he thought and felt—as he could her—while everyone else saw only a mask was even more intimate than a shared bed. He would not show her the worry that she could only imagine he had felt when she had lost consciousness that morning, because he believed that she had enough on her plate at the moment.
Her stomach chose to make its disapproval at her woolgathering apparent; even though she was alone, she blushed at the very vocal protest it made. Pushing herself upright, Daine grabbed her packs and dug for clothing—after tucking Numair’s note into one of the pockets. The basket in the corner held dirty laundry, which she would have to have washed soon, even though she wasn’t sure when. Maybe she’d ask one of the Riders to do it along with their own while she scouted. A promise to take up another chore later on in exchange might get it done.
Finding cloth, Daine tugged, only to find herself with a lapful of skirts instead of breeches. She usually carried at least one dress with her, space permitting, in case she needed to dress up to meet someone. Oddly, despite her once very powerful distain for dresses and skirts, she had become comfortable in them lately. Perhaps it was years of seeing the Lioness in gowns when she was at the Swoop, or having matured enough to no longer feel like an awkward colt in all that cloth, or finding that being well dressed did, as Thayet had once said, make one feel confident. It was probably a bit of each—but aided by the fact that she had a choice . No longer pressed by custom or general approval to wear skirts, Daine could dress in ‘men’s clothes’, or in the style that Alanna had adopted for Court, or in traditional dresses. That freedom allowed her to enjoy wearing the occasional pretty dress—and the look on Numair’s face when he saw her in one.
She considered digging for something else, but was too hungry to bother. The dresses she now owned were generally simple to get on, with cleverly concealed divided skirts—she wasn’t about to be caught in something she couldn’t ride or fight in—and bodices that laced in the front. This one was of lightweight grey wool with a deep blue bodice that fitted her slender curves comfortably while showing them well. Lacing the front as she slid on her boots, she only barely remembered to brush her sleep-tangled hair and couldn’t be bothered to pin up the unruly curls. They fell in a soft cascade around her face and shoulders and spilt down her back as she took the stairs at a fast clip.
She ignored the presence of nearly half the town in the common room, obviously discussing the day’s events and speculating on future ones. Equally easy to ignore was the silence that followed in her wake, or the whispers that began after she had passed. Her only interest was in the isolated table near the fire, the tall dark figure sitting at it, and the food that was clearly displayed there.
“Ah, she lives,” Buri smiled at her as she reached the table. “Better?”
“Some—a bit more sleep would be better, but food’s more important now—thank you!” she sighed with gratitude as Numair set a full plate of hearty stew and dark rye bread in front of the empty seat beside him. She dropped inelegantly onto the bench and pounced on the food, only barely remembering not to fall on it like a wolf on a kill. The first bite was heaven, despite being plain fare.
There were chuckles all around at her obvious pleasure in the meal, which she took in the good humor they were meant. Cedwin went on, commenting, “You look quite different, Daine.”
She looked up, hearing something in his tone, to find him gazing at her, admiration showing faintly in his eyes. A quick glance around showed her that Sir Conrik and Marcus looked at her with some surprise and curiosity, and the young knight, Sir Relwyn, held a more obvious measure of the same interest as the mage. The hand that Numair had laid on her knee the moment she sat down tightened faintly; while Numair wasn’t particularly jealous, he did occasionally have a possessive manner—which didn’t bother her, as she shared it. Situations like this could bring it out, not because he feared she’d stray, but because he wasn’t as trusting of his own sex when they showed interest in her, and felt driven to demonstrate his claim on her affections just as she did when the situations were reversed. Jealousy was unhealthy, but this feeling was more elemental than that petty emotion, and both were careful to rein it in before it became dangerous.
“Surely I don’t look that different in a dress—do I really look so much like a boy in breeches?” she demanded, looking down at the snug bodice.
“Oh, no,” Cedwin hastily reassured her—while Marcus grinned and shock his head at the two younger members of his party.
“I don’t think it’s the dress, Daine, so much as your hair,” Buri pointed out. “Though the dress is pretty.”
She scowled. “I couldn’t be bothered to pin my hair—do you know how long that takes? The only reason I’m wearing the dratted skirt is because it was the first thing at hand, and I was too hungry to look for something else.”
“Hmmm—I’m glad,” Numair spoke before one of her sudden admirers or her friends could. “The dress might be pretty, but you look far more so.” He reached up and wrapped a curl around his fingers as he spoke, stroking it lightly.
She ignored the others and met his gaze questioningly. There was no doubt as to the impression he was trying to make, and she sought an explanation in the wordless manner they managed to use.
What are you doing? We’re in public.
Do you care? he returned, eyebrow arched. We’re betrothed—why should it matter what they, or all of Snowsdale, think?
She felt her hand drift to the chain around her neck, revealed by the low neckline of the gown. It wasn’t the badger’s claw she sought, however, but the delicate yet sturdy ring that hung there. She caught sight of a number of villagefolk watching the table from the corner of her eye, including several pairs of eyes taking in the intimate gesture Numair had made.
She arched her brow in return. You just don’t want Cedwin looking at my chest—he’s too much in awe of you to flirt with your woman.
Amusement chased over his face. Really? I hadn’t noticed.
The entire exchange took only a few seconds, during which time their eyes locked, seeming to shut out the world. The spoke only with their eyes, emotions and thoughts crossing them only to be seen and interpreted by the other in an uncanny understanding that came only from deep intimacy—not only being in love and living together, but having traveled, studied, and fought together for years. The warm weight of the ring against her fingers, the gentle warmth in Numair’s gaze mixed with mild humor, decided her.
Before he could see the decision in her eyes, Daine leaned in—and up —setting her hand on his shoulder and pressing her lips to his. An instant of surprise, followed quickly by amusement, ran through him, before he returned the kiss, the fingers in her hair moving to her nape. The kiss lingered a moment as they sank into it, but they kept it light, a sweet meeting of lips and nothing else.
She sat back, smiling lightly. “Flattery—what is it about me being in a dress that makes you so flirtatious?”
“Imminent temptation,” he answered immediately. “You’re a fetching sight.”
“More flattery,” she laughed. “You’re terrible—what am I to do with you?”
His arched brow was answer enough, and brought a faint blush to her cheeks. With a mock scowl, she returned to her plate. Numair laid his arm against her back, his hand on her shoulder while he stroked her bare collarbone with his thumb.
“Ah…” was all Cedwin managed, while the other Gallans at the table looked at them with varying degrees of shock and amusement. Marcus chuckled.
“So the wind blows that way, does it?”
There were chuckles while Cedwin shook off his stunned expression and Relwyn sighed, applying himself to his own meal. Buri sighed in mock exasperation. “You too—between shapeshifting, fireworks, and that nonsense, you’re a constant spectacle.” The humor in her voice took out any sting.
Daine looked pointedly at her friend. “Spectacle, huh? Let’s discuss the spectacle we discovered last night.”
“We should talk about what’s next with the bandits,” Raoul interrupted swiftly, changing the subject while everyone else glanced questioningly at Daine and Buri, noticing the mild blush on the latter’s cheeks—and small flickering of Raoul’s gaze. Evin and Lena shifted their gazes between the two commanders, wondering at their odd behavior.
Daine was perfectly willing to take the time to torment her friends now; she’d get a report on everything that had happened today in a few minutes, and no real plans could be made until scouting had been done. She turned to Lena, intending to bring her subtly into the truth, when she saw the bruising on her face.
“Odd’s bob’s, Lena, I didn’t realize you were hurt today. Are you alright?” Besides the shadowing bruise across her cheekbone, Daine noticed the lumpy shape of bandages under her clothes, one on Lena’s left forearm, and the other on her right shoulder. “How badly were you hurt?”
A tense, brooding silence fell across the table, which Daine sensed immediately. “What’s wrong? What happened? Bright Goddess—did someone die?”
“No! No, Daine, it’s not that—everyone’s fine, though Quint can’t finish healing everyone completely until tomorrow since he needs some time to recover,” Lena was quick to reassure her.
“Then what’s wrong?”
She felt Numair’s hand tighten on her shoulder, and slid a hand up to grip his fingers as Lena explained. “I wasn’t injured by bandits. It turns out,” she went on dryly—though a hint of fury and the edge of violence colored her tone—“that our concerns about Lord Vanel bore fruit.”
There was a few second of humming silence as Daine absorbed that. As realization came, it brought a lethal awareness, much like the one that came during a battle. Her eyes slitted, and the grey-blue took on an icy appearance beneath her lashes. “Explain.”
“I’m fine, Daine,” Lena spoke calmly despite the light tension that filled her. It was memories that brought it, not Daine’s sharp tone, which she had heard once or twice before. “He propositioned me this afternoon; I went for a walk when I couldn’t sleep—yes, I already know it was foolish, I’ve had that discussion with Commander Buri.” He tone spoke of what kind of ‘discussion’ it had been.
“Vanel was just as accepting of refusal as you said,” she went on calmly, “and was particularly displeased at being held off physically by a woman. I held my own quite well, and he’s got as many cuts as I do to show for it.”
“She held off his sword with only a long knife and dagger,” Raoul added, “and still managed to injury him in the process. A few more minutes and she probably would have disarmed him.”
Some of Daine’s tension faded, dropping her alertness from near painful to only sharp. Her friend hadn’t been raped, or even particularly close to it. “What happened?”
“Rahim came across us, and had Vanel on the ground at sword tip in a blink.” There was a hidden current in Lena’s voice when she spoke Rahim’s name, which Daine tucked away for later. If that tone spoke true, there was something between her friend and the Own, for which she was very happy. Of course, there was also a small matter of revenge; Lena had taken immense pleasure from teasing Daine about Numair, usually in the form of questioning her on how he was a lover, occasionally in public to Daine’s intense embarrassment. Returning the favor would be very enjoyable.
Still, that was for later—when they were home, in the safety and comfort of their own realm. For now, “what happens to him—Vanel?” She turned to Marcus expectantly.
Marcus looked uncomfortable and angry; the knights looked very unhappy. “I cannot say how sorry we are for what happened,” Marcus began.
Daine cursed, fluidly and at length, beginning in Gallan and then switching to Common, even slipping into the violent and colourful swears she had learned from George Cooper and Alanna. It took her several minutes to run dry, during which she never repeated herself. Cedwin was left blushing while there were several admiring glances.
Finally she ended with an angry, “You aren’t going to do a dratted thing. I shouldn’t be surprised—he’s a noble, so he gets away with what he wishes as long as it’s against common folk.”
Marcus shifted, “Mistress, that’s not—”
“Don’t tell me what its not; I grew up here, I’ve seen what that snake’s done, and no one even considers protesting. Do you honestly think this is the first time he’s tried rape? The only first of today was that he tried for a woman who’s a better fighter than he is!”
“Daine, what happens to Vanel is for the Gallans to decide—both his father and the king will know what happened,” Raoul interrupted before her voice could raise enough to be heard throughout the room.
“He will be watched,” Conrik added, “now that we know about him.”
“There is nothing to be done today because we intend to leave it be,” Raoul went on. “He is a Gallan, and we are not; we will leave him to the justice of his own king—unless he crosses me.”
“Sir Raoul,” Marcus began again. Daine felt some sympathy for him; he was trying to do his duty, but didn’t seem to like it, or Vanel very much. He had to foster relations with Tortall while keeping rein on his own countryman. To have to publicly disciple or arrest a noble acting as an escort to foreign delegates—for attacking one of them—would make Galla and it’s leaders seem foolish and untrustworthy; despite that, and the duty he had to his country, he obviously believed Vanel needed to be punished—a difficult position. Still, she felt less concern for him than for any one of Vanel’s victims.
Apparently, Raoul felt the same because he interrupted. “Baron, brining Vanel to justice is up to your countrymen—unless he injures one of mine. He has been duly warned that harming one of my people can be construed as an act of war against Tortall—and you are aware that it was with in my rights to execute him this afternoon. One warning in all that he will have.”
Marcus looked uncomfortable, but nodded. “Lord Vanel will be watched—though, under the circumstances, he will likely chose to remain at Border’s Peak.” The reasons for Vanel’s ‘choice’ were abundantly clear.
Unhappy, Daine reluctantly accepted that there was nothing else to be done. In Tortall, she had grown accustomed to nobles that were not exempt from justice because of rank. Here, she was being reminded that few places in the world worked thusly. The Lord of Border’s Peak was important because he was the keystone in the defense or Galla against Scanran attack; between that, and Galla needing to save face, Vanel would not be revealed for what he was at this time. It was implied that, since he was to be closely watched, the first opportunity to arrest or execute Vanel for a less scandalous or embarrassing reason would be taken. It stung to accept, but since Raoul, who was the head of this entire mission, accepted it they would follow his example—however reluctantly.
She looked back at Lena. “Are you sure you’re fine?”
“Any damage he might have done was erased by the sight of him nearly wetting himself when Sir Raoul got a hold of him. “She smiled at the memory. “ That was worth everything.”
Between Lena, Numair, and Buri, Daine learned everything that had gone on not only between Lena and Vanel, but all the minor events of the day, all the plans that had been made, and even the schedule that had been posted for watches—one of which Evin was currently heading.
“We’ve got men at two points on the trail, well hidden, to warn us if there’s any movement,” Buri explained. “No one’s been set on backtracking the bandits along the trail to find their camp—we don’t know how far it might be, or if they have guards and traps of their own. That’s why locating the camp will be your duty, Daine—no one is going to sound the alert on an animal, and you’ll be able to smell any sentries or traps. Tomorrow night you’ll scout out the raiders camp.”
“Tomorrow night ?” Daine demanded. “That’s too far away—anything could—”
“You are not going until Numair and Quint agree that you’re in top shape,” Buri said flatly. “You’re safety will depend entirely on your ability to shapeshift, and unless your Gift is at full capacity, you will not be going, alone, into the hornet’s nest. You might recover by morning, but you will not be scouting until dark, since it will decrease that chance of you being seen, regardless of your shape. Any questions?”
Daine scowled at her friend, having recognized her tone. It was her Commander voice, particularly the one she reserved for pointing out the stupidity of a trainee or Rider. Daine was no more fond of being dressed down than those trainees—but she recognized that she did deserve it. Buri was perfectly right in her logic, but the wait grated on her nerves.
She grumbled under her breath, scowling harder when Buri said, quite cheerfully, “I thought not,” and managing to sustain her irritation for several minutes, until Numair’s fingertips stroking at her nape finally brushed away her frustration—no matter how she clung to it.
“I hate when you do that,” she muttered to him, unable to prevent herself from subtly arching into his fingers. “It’s not fair.” Numair only chuckled lightly—and continued the intimate caress.
Daine applied herself to her plate once again, a second helping that Numair had pressed on her. She argued with him about fussing over her, only to be told pointedly, “I’m allowed to fuss—eat.” The table was relatively subdued, weary from the day’s activities. Sir Relwyn and Sir Conrik had gone back to camp as Evin had entered—the latter returning from one patrol while the former went to help the next. The common room was more full than ever since the sun had gone down completely, the day’s chores over. Daine and Numair both stiffened slightly as they noticed Hakkon approach the group, their reaction drawing the focus of everyone else.
“Master Falconer,” Raoul acknowledged. “What can we do for you?”
“Ah, my lord, I was wonderin’ if I could have a report of what happened t’day, with th’ bandits,” Hakkon asked, his tone respectful. He kept his eyes firmly on Raoul—and stood on the opposite side of the table from Daine. “The town folk are curious, an’ I’d like t’ be able t’ tell ‘em what happened, an’ what’s goin’ t’.”
Buri nodded. “Very reasonable, Master Falconer—but I need Sir Raoul right now for laying out tactics,” she added, gesturing to the papers that lay before them. “Mistress Daine can certainly give you the details, as she was there.”
Quiet had fallen over the room when Hakkon had approached the table as folk tried to catch what might be said. As a result, and because Buri had pitched her voice to carry without seeming to shout, the entire room heard her seemingly harmless comment. In the wake of her words, a pin dropping would have caused an echo.
Hakkon went red, then white, then red again, his eyes flickering to Daine for only a heartbeat. Daine blinked at her friend and, seeing the placid expression and dark eyes, knew Buri had made a very deliberate stab at Hakkon. The man could either acknowledge her and give her the respect accorded to one of the Tortallan party, or he could lose face in front of half the town, showing them all that he was afraid of Daine. Regardless of what he chose to do, Buri had both publicly slapped at the attitude which most of the village held towards Daine, and knocked Hakkon down a peg by putting him on the spot and delegating his questions to a ‘lesser’ member of the party.
Daine felt Numair’s hand tighten briefly on her nape, a gesture of silent support and comfort. Knowing every eye in the room was on the headman and herself, she arched a brow at the man. “Well, Hakkon? Would you like to know what happened today?”
His gaze snapped to her face, his shock at her gall in addressing him so flippantly overcoming the memory of her transforming into a wolf. Angry color flooded his face as she stared at him with mild distain; obviously, this was one to many blows to his ego in such a short span of time. He let his gaze sweep over her, sneering at her loosened hair and the sight of Numair’s hand resting against her neck in casual intimacy.
He was saved from publicly loosing his temper—and, unknown to him, being publicly flayed by the tongues of not only Daine, but also Numair, Lena, Evin, Buri and Raoul, all of whom were waiting for the opportunity to justifiably strike out in revenge for their friend—by the front door opening, letting in the night wind along with Lori and Cory.
Cory glanced around the room shyly, a hesitating briefly when he saw the crowd and the eyes which were divided between the door and the arresting scene in the corner. Lori had no such qualms and started briskly across the common room, he son following her. When she reached the table, she nodded politely to those seated, gave a brief, unreadable glance at Hakkon, and smiled at Daine—her eyebrow arching only slightly at the sight of such a public display of affection.
“You’re up then, good—Master Salmalin and Commander Buri said you’d be set to rights with some rest, but Cory was fair worried—so was I. You’d best take better care of yourself, miss,” she added sternly.
“If I don’t,” Daine said wryly, nudging Numair with her elbow, “then he will—and make himself a nuisance in the process, so it’s a far sight easier to watch myself. I’m fine, I promise,” she reassured both seriously, meeting Cory’s gaze squarely to show she was in earnest. “You needn’t fuss—that’s his job,” she glanced at Numair again.
“And it’s one that’s worthy of combat wages, I assure you,” he added dryly, ignoring her glare.
“I’ve no doubt—she always was stubborn.” She, too, ignored Daine’s glare, causing the younger woman to sit back with a huff. “In any case, Cory’n I are for home tonight—I’ve left Rand and Rela—my eldest girl—alone with the littles too long, and Cory needs to be getting himself ready.”
“I’ve got to pack,” Cory murmured, aware of the presence of lords and warriors at the table, even though he had spent time in the same camp with them earlier. “And tell Da that I’m for Tortall and the Riders.”
“We’ll be glad to have you with us on the trip,” Buri reassured him, seeing his nerves, “and in Tortall. But are you sure you should be traveling after dark?”
“It’s a short journey, only an hour or so,” Lori explained, “and to be sure, I’m not after spending another night from my own home and husband, as I’ve missed both. We only waited to see Daine before we left. Though I expect you to pay us a visit before you leave,” she continued with a firm glare at Daine. “If only for an hour or two when you’ve finished up this business and come to fetch Cory. I expect you, personally.”
“Aye, ma’am,” Daine responded automatically, in the same manner she had as a child under that same expression.
During the exchange, everyone had forgotten Hakkon, standing behind Lori, until his voice—cold, but holding a tone of false concern—sliced through the conversation.
“Mistress Hyrdsman, I wonder…mayhaps Mistress Sarrasri isn’t th’ best influence on your son? He’s at a’ impressionable age for a lad, an’, well…” he trailed off, looking reluctant but determined to do the right thing—an act the best Players would envy. “Surely your son might’n be better with more—honorable—folk? An’ your littles should surely be kept safe from such a’ influence.”
Even the densest of the villagers felt the sharp, lethal tension that sprung from the table of foreigners and nobles. Rapier-sharp gazes turned on Hakkon as every Tortallan focused on him, Marcus and Cedwin drew swift breaths, feeling the insult to Daine keenly and embarrassment on behalf of their countryman. Cory’s mouth dropped in shock at the insult, and glanced towards his ‘cousin’ and the tall mage—and felt his skin grow cold at the latter’s calm expression and hell-dark eyes. Daine rested her chin on her hand, leaning forward to gaze at Hakkon with amused interest—knowing that if she didn’t remain calm, her friends in general and Numair in particular would lose the tether-hold on their tempers.
“That’s fascinating, Hakkon—who might these ‘honorable’ folk be? And what does that make me? You were referring only to me, correct? Even you couldn’t be so amazingly daft as to say that everyone else at this table is without honor—at least, your version of it.”
Hakkon ground his teeth, taking refuge in temper as shivers crawled along his skin under the cold glares of the Tortallans. “You can’t really think that anyone’d want vulnerable littles about you, Mistress Sarrasri,” he emphasized her surname and it’s implications. “No one could want their little ones t’ take in their head t’be like you.”
“Why not,” Lori demanded in a stern, flat tone which carried to every corner of the room. “You see Daine here—she sits with heroes and nobles, people famed in their own lands and others; she’s the ear of a royal family, a home and job with a famous army. If my son’s half so successful, I’ll be as proud as I can be without having to split in half to hold it.”
There was a quiet stir in the room as farmers and herders, blacksmith and cooper mulled on that—after all, it was true enough that Sarra’s bastard seemed to be a fair important person.
Hakkon heard the words, and lost what control he had on his temper, and his tongue. “She sits with ‘em only ‘cause she ran mad an’ fled th’ justice we offered! Hadn’t she lost her mind an’ turned killer, she’d never of found her way int’ such company! Surely th’ only reason she stays in it is ‘cause she pays for it in bed—she seems willin’ enough to whore herself!” he gestured with righteous fury at the way Numair and Daine sat together. “Is that what you’d be wantin’ you’re young ‘uns to—”
Daine felt the air snap a heartbeat before Hakkon’s rant was cut off sharply by writhing black and silver fire wrapping around his mouth and throat. She had listened to the headman and heard someone who was losing his grip on reality in his rage—someone sure to do as much damage to himself as to her—and felt no particular pain, only frustration with such deeply imbedded fear and hatred. Numair, apparently, was not to be satisfied with Hakkon embarrassing himself. His formidable temper, sparked only by a very long fuse, and finally ignited.
While the common room was filled with shocked gasps and whispers, and Hakkon’s eyes filled with fear and fury, Numair stood, his hand poised at his side and surrounded by the same glittering fire that held Hakkon. Stunned silence came to anyone who looked at his face—and Hakkon’s expression became one of horror in the face of the mage’s cold, silent rage.
“If you cannot hold your tongue, Falconer, I shall have to assist you.”
Even Daine felt a shudder at his tone; Buri and Raoul looked as if they had been about to interfere; both closed their mouths when Numair spoke, fully aware that they had not influence over him in this state—only Daine could cut through his rage.
She recognized this mood; it was one that came out only after long periods of suppressed temper and stress—such as having to watch her deal with painful memories and ignorant villagers who treated her like a leper. Numair was perfectly aware of his temper and strove to control it, succeeding the majority of the time. This, unfortunately, was not one of them and, combined by his deeply protective streak and the way he had bitten his tongue since arriving in Snowsdale, he was in a volatile and potentially lethal state. He could, and had, killed to protect her—and he could do it again.
“Numair,” Daine murmured, knowing that calm was the best way to catch his attention in this state. “Numair, let him go, love.”
“He can breath,” came his response in that same low, coldly violent voice. “I’m not cutting off his air, only his voice. Although that could change,” he added absently.
Daine ignored the way Hakkon’s eyes rolled in terror; she wasn’t intervening on his behalf, but on Numair’s, as he would regret anything he might do in such a temper. “There’s no reason for this, love.”
“Oh, there’s any number of reasons, not the least of which is that he’s a disgusting excuse for a human being and a man. The reasons that concern me, however, as far more specific. You,” he locked eyes with his prisoner, “have insulted Daine for the last time, Falconer. I should beat you senseless for every slur you’ve cast at her tonight—and I could kill you for all that you’ve done to her in her life. Unfortunately,” he said, sounding truly remorseful, “I am a fairly civilized man, and won’t kill you in cold blood. But I am not that civilized, and if you ever speak in any derogatory manner to Daine again, I will at the very least silence you permanently—you’ll have a difficult time insulting anyone without you’re tongue, Falconer.”
She laid her hand on his arm—the one held out in spell casting—and squeezed lightly. “You’ve made you’re point—you can let him lose now.”
His eyes flickered to hers, and in them she saw that he wasn’t nearly ready to calm down yet. Still, she left her hand where it was in a gesture of support as he visibly reined in his temper. In a tone less lethal but still viciously cold, he spoke to Hakkon again. “Let me be very clear in correcting some of you’re uninformed assumptions. First, Cory could be in no more ‘honorable’ company than if he dined with kings nightly. Secondly, Daine has done nothing in her life that she need be ashamed of, or which could make her any less honorable—all of the supposed ‘crimes’ you continue to toss in her face are either pertaining to her birth, something which was completely out of her control, or to events which took place, not only when she was being controlled by a wild and extremely powerful magical gift, but when she was hardly more than a child and under painful circumstances. Lastly,” he spoke while pitching his voice to guarantee that everyone in the common room could hear him—not that they weren’t already straining to hear his every word. “Daine and I are handfasted, and formally betrothed—by a ceremony overseen by a Priest of Mithros, and witnessed by Their Royal Majesties of Tortall. Just to make sure you are aware that I have every right to defend her honor in any way possible,” he added even as he flicked his fingers, releasing the spell—and Hakkon.
The headman took a stumbling step backwards, wide eyes still on the tall mage. Daine felt his muscles, tense and drawn, under her hand, and knew that his temper was still riding him hard. She silently prayed that she could get him out of here without something else triggering him.
Hakkon panted lightly, recovering his breath and his composure, obviously struggling to regain control. His gaze flickered over some of the avid faces in the room, which apparently stirred him to try and regain some of his lost face. Just as he opened his mouth to speak—and as Daine prepared to interrupt before he could push Numair into killing him—deadly brown-black eyes bore into him once more. “Did you have something to say, Falconer?”
The words and tone brought his previous threat immediately to mind to all that heard him—and Hakkon seemed to reconsider how important his tongue was.
Lori, bless her, broke the tension before it could cause anyone to have a brainstorm by scolding in the tone she’d perfected in her years of taking naughty children to task. “Really, Daine, you shouldn’t be up and about as yet—it’s barely seven marks since you dropped in a dead faint right off you’re pony. Back to bed with ye, miss!”
“Of course,” she murmured in repentant tone, latching on to the excuse like a drowning woman. “Numair, could you help me upstairs? My legs feel fair useless,” she lied shamelessly, knowing he didn’t believe her.
“Certainly, magelet,” he murmured, eyes holding Hakkon’s for another heartbeat, before scanning the room briefly. There were several shudders—and more than one sign against evil drawn in the air. “Lori’s right; you shouldn’t be up, but resting.”
Daine met Buri’s eyes briefly as she and Numair passed, reassuring the commander that she could take care of Numair. Buri nodded and, even as they began up the steep steps, she heard the K’mir strike up a calm conversation with the baron—who followed her lead. By the top of the stairs, the low murmur of voices could be heard from downstairs; subdued yet, but there.
They said nothing until they reached her bed chamber. Numair moved with a rigidity far removed from his usual long-limbed grace as he walked into the room before her. As soon as she crossed the threshold, the door snapped shut and was sealed with black and silver fire.
Daine was about to speak when the porcelain ewer that normally held wash water exploded, a soundless destruction that had millions of tiny pieces flying out—only to be caught within a translucent shield, fragments colliding with the solid fire in a quiet rain. In mere heartbeats it was over, and the once-ewer was nothing more than small, sand-sized bits—not even shards, but grains of uniform porcelain.
She took a deep breath and said dryly, “Are you finished? Because there’s only so much furniture in here, and I rather need the bed.”
He whirled to face her, and finally, she saw with relief, his temper ran hot rather than lethally cold. Flags of colour rode high on his cheeks, and the velvet of his eyes burned hot with rage and frustration. He opened his mouth to speak and she arched a brow at him; after a breath of time, he closed eyes and lips on a choked sound that held both ire and resignation.
“Yes, sweet, I’m finished for now.”
“Good.” With his eyes still closed, he never saw her coming. Between one moment and the next, she had him flat on his back on the narrow bed, with her straddling his hips and her hands braced on his chest so her face was just above his own. When his eyes flew open in shock, they met hers; one dark and tumultuous, the other smoky and intent.
“I love you,” she said flatly. “I love you so much it hurts at times, Numair, and that’s why I know you well enough to see that this has been as hard on you as on me—I’ve known it all along, that all this has been eating at you. But you have to listen to me Numair—it doesn’t hurt.”
Confusion came to replace fury, and she softened her tone to explain. “I told you the other day that I could move on now, and I meant it. I’m making peace with what my life was, and all that happened here. Maybe I don’t understand the why —why things had to be the way they were, why Hakkon and Rikar and all the others who follow them act like they do—but it doesn’t matter anymore, because I’m getting past it. Now you need to do the same.”
His eyes slid closed again on a sigh, and his large hands came up to rest on her hips. “Hearing it, sweet, seeing first hand the ridiculous attitudes and asinine beliefs that you had to live with hearing every day—and the insults—damn it! I want to be able to make it right.”
He would, she knew. He was a man who believed in justice because he had seen its lack, who tried to be fair and to bring fairness into the lives of others. With those he cared for, belief in the validity of justice became a powerful desire to make it real—even to the extent of revenge, though he usually controlled that desire far better.
“You can’t, love, because to them it was right, and those ‘ridiculous attitudes and asinine beliefs’ are the Gods’ own truths—and killing Hakkon, or Rikar, or anyone else, can’t change the past or make them see any different. It won’t make it right, Numair, and it might damage what’s now—and I promise, love,” she murmured, shifting one hand from his chest to trace the strong line of his jaw, “that it’s the now that is far, far more important to me.”
His eyes opened again, searching hers, seeking the truth. She let him see her thoughts, and her heart, knowing both were an open book to him in any case. After a few moments, he sighed lightly.
“My beautiful magelet,” he murmured, more to himself than to her even though his words—as with most of the compliments he paid her about her looks—made her blush lightly. He turned his head, pressing a kiss in to her palm, then tugged her down so that she lay on his chest rather than loom over him. Feeling the way his muscles had relaxed from their angry tension, she sighed and cuddled closer.
She let his heartbeat soothe her even as her warmth did the same for him, until she was drifting on the edge of sleep. She stirred only when he shifted under her, laying her on the bed while undressed first himself, then her.
“You are beautiful, and tempting, in dresses, sweet,” he told her softly, and she stirred, thinking to protest; she was no beauty, and never saw in her face what he, and a few other males, seemed to. “No, don’t argue; you are beautiful, even in breeches and covered in road dust. Seeing you in gowns only lets me see your softer edges.” As her bodice fell open with the loosened laces, she opened her eyes dazedly and murmured his name, reaching for him. Soft kisses fell on her neck and shoulders, distracting her. “Not tonight, sweet,” and even half-asleep, she heard regret mixed in with the gentleness. “You’re for sleep, so you can be rested and ready for the morrow—and the night to come.” Her clothes slid away, and she was left with the warmth and scent of him surrounding her as he drew her close.
The last thing she was aware of before dropping headlong into the rest of her delayed sleep was the rumble of Numair’s voice under her ear as he whispered, “I love you until it hurts, too, sweet—but it’s a good kind of pain.”
Even as her mind went dark with sleep, she smiled. Love was the only kind of pain that hurt more from its absence than its presence. She treasured the ache of it.
Warning – there is a threat of/attempted rape in this chapter, as well as violence. Please read cautiously if you might be triggered.
A red squirrel perched on one of the lower branches of a blue spruce. Well concealed by shadow and dense greenery, no one noticed the creature, or the unnatural way it sat, still and attentive, seemingly focused on the odd collection of two-leggers that sprawled out near its tree. Nor could anyone see the way a small barn owl would occasionally take the squirrel’s place, tilting and turning its head to catch stray conversation and chatter, which occurred rarely among these two-leggers, who snored and slept off a night of excess and late-night boasting over campfires and ill-gotten meads.
No one would guess that in the sharp and impenetrable needles of the spruce, a young woman barely past eighteen waited, hoping for more of the information she had gained throughout the night, broken only by twice-nightly visits to a hunting blind several leagues away where she had retreated to eat, relieve herself, and make a report with the Riders who waited their for her. They would never know that, several times during the early morning hours while the camp was silent but for male snoring, her mind had drifted back to the morning before, when her lover had made up for two nights of abstinence with a sweet, passionate wake-up call in the dawn hours.
None of those who were observed could see that, within green-blue boughs, patient and powerful ears had learned the placement of their sentries, the numbers of their men, and the secrets they could hardly remember revealing in their inebriated states. Or that the eyes and ears within would be followed by bow and blade with the next rising of the dawn.
Her formal report in the command tent in the late morning was brief and involved her personal observations rather than specific military details. Those had already been brought back to camp thanks to the reports she’d made to the Riders who’d acted as her support at the watch post on the trail between the bandit camp and Snowsdale. As a result, large-scale diagrams of the camp were already waiting on the tent, along with lists on the sentries, numbers, weapons, and supplies.
“Anything else, Daine?” Buri asked her.
She was nearly swaying with weariness. Over seventeen candlemarks of tracking, traveling, spying, and shapeshifting from wolf to bat to owl to squirrel—and back again—left her feeling exhausted. Again.
“Not really, except that I think at least a few of the leaders must have been in the army. The sentries are always out, and change on a strict schedule, no matter how drunk everyone else is. And even the tents make me think it—they’re in perfect, symmetrical rows, just like this camp. Under the sloth and drink, and the ragged appearance of most of the bandits, there’s an efficiency and basic orderliness to everything.”
Raoul stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “That theory explains a few things—like how large and well organized this band is. If their leaders are former soldiers—maybe even low-ranking officers—they’d be well able to organize and command men, even raiders.”
“When do we move?”
Buri tapped the diagrams. “We’ll look at these some more. If standard maneuvers are possible, then tomorrow at dawn. If wee need something different, no sooner than the day after. We’ve time yet, and I won’t risk lives be rushing.”
“If tomorrow is a possibility, the Daine needs to sleep now,” Numair spoke up from where he’d remained silent in the corner.
“I should—” she began.
“Get some rest as you’re useless in this state,” he finished briskly, standing and drawing her towards the flap of the tent.
“You don’t have to drag me along—I’m not a child,” Daine grumbled, hearing Buri chuckle as they left the tent.
“No, but you are as obstinate as one when you’re tired.” He ignored her scowl as he entwined their fingers firmly and started for the inn—leaving her to either follow or be dragged.
Her brief bought of ill temper had faded by the time they reached the inn. The only reason for her irritation was being tired in any case. Numair took her straight up to her room, where Kitten looked up only briefly from her jacks—long enough to trill a greeting—before returning to her game.
Deftly, the laces of her shirt fell open under his clever fingers. Once again, Daine told him, “I’m not a child; I can manage.”
He arched a brow at her, a sly smile touching his lips. “But I enjoy undressing you so.”
Suddenly, she felt a great deal more energetic. “By all means—continue.”
With a sigh, he released her. “Not now, sweet; you’re too tired.”
She leaned up on her toes, wrapping her arms about his neck and drawing his face to hers for a long, passionate kiss. After a moment, she released him, smirking. “Does that seem ‘too tired’ to you?”
He grinned at her, a boyish expression that held an endless amount of playfulness, mischief, and, somehow at the same time, experience. When he gathered her close and returned the kiss, neither noticed Kitten turn a pale orange—the equivalent of a dragon’s blush—gather up her toys and leave the room until a sharp croak had the door swinging closed firmly behind her. Daine drew back, looking at the door with a giggle.
“We embarrassed her,” she laughed.
“It’s not the first time,” he murmured, far more interested in the crook of her neck and the tender flesh there. “She’ll get over it.”
“I s’ppose,” she sighed, no longer aware of the conversation, drifting into the world of sensation that they built together.
It was slow and sweet, with clothes falling away almost unnoticed under the lazy exploration of hands and lips. Daine barely felt the bed beneath her when they lowered themselves down on to it, unaware of everything but Numair. In the sunlight, they shut out the world and everything in it except for each other.
She said his name, more of a sigh than words, as they came together. He spoke of his love with hands instead of voice, his fingers finding hers and twining them together. There were more sighs, and then moans, the only sounds in the sunlit room besides the whisper of the sheets and sound of flesh on flesh. At the end, he pressed his face into her neck, breathing in her scent as he lost himself in her, while she turned her face into his thick dark hair, letting herself go with him.
Numair pressed a soft kiss to her forehead as he raised his head, already knowing she’d drifted into sleep. He drew the covers up over her cooling frame and stroked her tangled locks, settling beside her. She needed sleep, and he needed to return to the camp, but for now, he would stay with her, stealing a few more minutes and watching her as she dreamed. Just for a while.
The sentries, all eight, went down swiftly and silently in the false dawn, two candlemarks before the next shift change occurred. Like ghosts, Riders slipped up behind all eight and had them unconscious, bound and gagged in mere moments. Soon after, Riders and the Own drifted through the rocky terrain and greenery, taking positions at both entrances of the flat-bottomed valley that the raiders had chosen for their camp. Once there, they waited, still in the shadows of the pre-dawn, even their mounts tensed and ready for the coming battle.
If there had been a way to slip into the camp silently and capture each bandit in their tents sleeping, they would have seized it—not for the bandit’s sake, but their own. In the early morning mists, each man and woman had already accepted that today, like any other day they rode under the banner of Tortall and their monarchs, they might die. It was a truth they accepted along with mount and bow and sword—to bear the name of a Queen’s Rider or one of the King’s Own was to know that the blood shed on any day might well be your own.
Despite it, or perhaps because of it, they sat, silent and proud in the saddle, waiting for the command.
When it came, in a brilliant flare of red above the trees where they hid, they rode hard, passing between the rocky cliffs that framed the valley on either side, the two narrow entrances the only way in and, on any other night, guarded well by sentries. By the time they reached the grassy floor of the valley, their targets had scrambled out of tents and away from dying fires. Despite drinking and eating to excess through the night, these were men used such things, and who slept with weapons in hand. They stood ready for a troop of a Lord’s Guard, or perhaps a militia of local men.
They were met with armed riders who cut through the camp from both sides, slicing through the middle and firing a rain of arrows into their meager ranks of twenty-one. The bandits fled from the arrows—only to find themselves facing their own fortifications, the shale cliffs of the valley. From either side of them, armored men on battle steeds blocked escape. Captured between Riders and cliffs on two fronts, and the Own on the last two, the bandits did the only thing they could; they turned on their attackers with the madness and desperation of wounded jackals, fighting not to win, or even to escape, but to do as much damage to their aggressors as possible before falling to them.
Daine rode with the Riders who kept the bandits pinned with arrows, just beyond the first rank of fighters. The raiders fought with vicious savagery, but she had seen it before. They went for horses and legs, which was also typical. And they refused to stay down, slicing at the hamstrings of horses even when they lay on the ground, seriously or mortally injured. More than once, she fired a bolt into a dieing man to save one of her comrades from having their horse killed beneath them. Two raiders went down from heavy blows with the Own’s shields, unconscious but not dead; they would be within a day, executed almost as soon as they were turned over to the local magistrate. She blocked out the screams and shouts, the clash of steel, and the dying scream of more than one man and horse.
~There! Daine!~ Cloud’s voice in her mind drew her attention a heartbeat before the pony turned, making for the scene she’d witnessed. One of the Riders had had his horse taken down from under him, and now faced two armed bandits, one of whom had managed to grab a mount before the fighting started in earnest.
She had no blade, only her bow, but didn’t think on it, only ordered Cloud to strike at the bandit closest to the Falhar to give her room to draw the man onto the pony’s back.
~Tend yourself and don’t try to teach me what needs to be done!~ was the tart reply even as Cloud slashed out with wicked hooves, crushing the man’s skull. Daine offered Falhar her arm, swinging him behind her with unnatural strength. She barely felt the second bandit’s blade slice across her upper arm, nor noticed the blood that welled and slid down her arm even as Cloud spun on her heels and treated her assailant to the same as the first.
In the end, there were nineteen dead—all bandits, thank the gods. Including the eight sentries, they had taken eleven prisoners. Every other man in the camp had fought so fiercely that the Tortallans had been forced to strike killing blows to protect themselves and their friends. Eleven out of a total of fifty-nine bandits; two separate bloody dawns, and three battlefields. The waste of it was horrifying and sickening and at the same time wearying.
They would not bury the dead of clean up this mess as they had two days before; that was a task that Lord Brenen’s men would undertake, as well as gathering all of the bandit’s goods. The lord would get a percentage of them, and the rest would be divided among the villages that had been raided. Now, the only task for Daine and her fellows was to tend to the prisoners and their own, getting the wounded to Quint, who waited with Numair and Nonia and the Gallan knights, protecting the backs of the others and staying far enough out of range that the precious healers were out of danger—but close enough to save the lives of those badly wounded.
Daine helped Evin bandage a deep, bleeding knife wound on his left leg, sending him back to Quint for proper treatment, only to have him point out her own wound. As soon as she became aware of it, the slice began to burn. She ignored it, allowing Evin to wrap a scarf tightly around her arm before turning away, back to the wounded.
Quint and Nonia would see to the wounded, using their Gift to heal those in immediate danger right away, stitching and bandaging anyone who could last until the village and proper space and supplies were available. Daine’s concern was the horses, who had fought as hard as their two-legged partners, and among whom were serious injuries and casualties.
As she checked each mount, healing sword wounds and, in more minor wounds, merely stopping the bleeding for now, much to the thanks of every one of the Riders and the Own, she blocked out the death all around her; the fallen animals, many of who she had trained along with their riders, and the bandits who, despite being part of a group she despised and fought with conviction and passion, were still human and bled red the same as her friends. Instead she focused on the good; her human friends had all survived, and they had been successful in their duty, and also in their task as envoys of Tortall.
She paused to smile at the sight of Lena and Rahim, the latter of which had been injured by a glancing sword across his unarmored shoulder and lower leg when he protected a fallen Rider. She cursed him, steadily and with imagination as she tore off her shirt sleeves and bandaged the freely-bleeding cuts. He spoke in a low, courteous tone as he always did, staying behind the shield of his Bazhir detachment. Lena scowled and cursed him again, then sighed, resigned. To Rahim’s considerable surprise, she then leaned in and kissed him firmly before stepping back to speak again. Even from a distance, Daine could see that she was telling him to be more careful, since she wasn’t fond of heroes; she also saw a mild blush, from her very public and intimate action. Rahim stared at her for a long moment, causing her to scowl at him again. His response was to drop his detachment, taking the Rider commander’s hand in his own—a very telling and intimate act for a Bazhir man—and reply that that must be difficult, seeing as she was a hero.
It was slow going back to Snowsdale: the uninjured escorted the captured bandits while those who weren’t seriously injured aided those who were. There was little conversation except for the occasional lightening of the mood or attempts to bolster those in pain. Daine rode at the tail of the ranks of the injured while Evin and Rahim led it; Numair rode with her.
“I’m very put out with you, magelet.”
“You’ve managed to damage yourself; I’m very fond of your body, and I’d rather it stays in one piece, preferably as it is now.”
“I didn’t damage myself—that damned bandit damaged me.”
“Did you return the favor?”
“No, but I think Cloud did.”
“Well, that’s something, at least.”
The playful humor, so typical of their relationship, eased her lingering tension and helped chase the scent of death from her nostrils far better than anything else in the world.
They were met at the edge of the camp by Marcus and Cedwin, several of the villagefolk, and Lord Brenen and his men.
Over the flurry of questions, Rahim’s cool tenor flowed smoothly, silencing the crowd. “Lord Brenen, our fellows are following closely behind us with several prisoners.”
Brenen, a tall rawboned man with hawk-like features and blonde hair that was as much grey as not, nodded. “Well, then, we’ll leave you to care for your wounded, and give you’re comrades a hand.” With brisk efficiency, he and his men headed the way that Daine and the others had just come, leaving far less bodies and confusion behind.
It became quickly apparent why Rahim headed a Company, and was considered to be one of Raoul’s right hands in the Own. Without raising his voice or using a single word more that necessary, he had the entire party organized in bare minutes. The seriously wounded were placed in the three tents that had been arranged for just that purpose earlier, with Quint beginning the more exacting Healing that being in the field had prevented. Nonia began work stitching and bandaging properly those who didn’t need Healing, sparing Quint and his Gift. Daine followed their example by checking over each horse as it was stripped of tack and groomed by volunteers from the village while the horse’s Riders were being seen to. She was forced to use more mundane poultices and tisanes on minor cuts and welts as her own Wild Magic was once again flickering, thanks to the more serious healing that had been required by some of the wounded animals. She’d saved them, even from potentially crippling injuries, but at cost to herself.
Just as she was giving a last pat to one of the Own’s great battle steeds, Rahim approached her. She saw no flicker of pain in his black gaze, even though his wounds had been stitched only, rather than Healed. She doubted if he would have shown a reaction if he’d been bleeding from an amputated leg.
“You have done your share of today’s work, and more, Mistress Sarrasri,” he said, absently patting the mount as well. Even if she hadn’t already liked him for himself and for Lena’s sake, that simple gesture would have insured it.
She smiled, not inclined to argue with him. She was feeling her aches and injuries. “I’ve just finished with the horses—the only ones we lost are the ones that fell on the battle field.”
A tiny smile touched his mouth, a telling gesture on that expressionless face. “Then we all must thank you. Losing a mount is much as losing a member of a Company or Group. Now, though, you should rest. We have done a good day’s work.”
“Seems like. I’m for a bath before sleep though—I’m dirt and grime head to toe. Oh, Rahim, you can call be Daine—‘Mistress Sarrasri’ is a fair mouthful, and I figure anyone who’s courting one of my friends should be allowed some familiarity.”
He blinked at her once, and even against his dark skin she could see a faint blush. “I did not know anyone—Lena has only just noticed herself my intentions.”
“You’ve too much respect for those about you—including horses—to give so much attention to a woman without honest intentions. If you were after a flirtation, you’d’ve steered far clear of Lena.”
“She is not a woman to be trifled with,” he agreed, another smile touching his lips, “but one of great spirit and heart.”
More than pleased with his assessment of her friend, she smiled at him again. “Absolutely. I’ll see you later; right now I’m for a bath.”
Having gained each other’s measure, both walked away well satisfied. Daine paused only long enough to make sure that Cloud had gotten a portion of hot mash, and to give her several sugar cubes in thanks for her work today, and then headed back to the inn and its bathhouse, hoping to have it to herself before the others returned from camp.
The placement of Snowsdale village was well planned. It had not been built here because of a river as most of the villages in Galla had been, nor as a strategic point of defense, as Border’s Keep was. The mountains between Scanra and Galla contained numerous mineral hot springs, most inaccessible or too sulfurous to be any use. In this area, however, the heated water came close enough to the surface to appear in numerous pools and wells, and also joined with the creeks and streams that flowed from the mountains down into the low lands. As a result, even in deep winter the water sources never froze, and the residents of the village had access to warm, sweet water fro bathing, cooking, and washing. During the time the Daine had lived here, a large bathhouse had existed at the edge of the town, a wooden structure built to enclose a large natural pool, divided into two separate rooms for the different genders. She had always preferred to use an unknown pool nearer to Ma’s house rather than have to deal with the villagers without the barrier of clothes.
Now, however, while the old bathhouse was still there, the inn also had one—a well built house that brought hot mineral water inside through a series of pipes. While normally Daine would take a natural, rocky pool to a bathtub, today she knew that it would be a miracle if she could make it from the inn’s bathhouse to her bed after a hot soak, much less from the edge of town. The way she felt now, it was very likely that she’d fall asleep in the tub.
The bathhouse was a pleasant affair, and she found herself surprised. It was linked to the back of the inn by a wooden walkway, so one didn’t have to cross the stableyard after a bath. The floor of the house was also made of smooth wood, as were the walls. The air inside was heavy with humidity, and the oil lamps contained scented oil rather than smoky fish oil. The tub was huge, made of copper and sunken into the floor. Fresh hot water came in via a copper spout, which poured a steady stream of clean water even as the dirty drained away at the other side of the tub. She’d seen such affairs before, in Corus and Port Caynn, and the bathing rooms at the Palace were equipped with something similar—though the water wasn’t from springs, and had to be turned on and off. This room, more than anything else, made Snowsdale’s growing prosperity obvious.
As the heat of the room sank into her bones, she sighed with pleasure. Stripping as quickly as her tired muscles allowed her, she left her stained clothes in a heap next to the clean towels she’d brought and sank into the water. As she submerged, a low moan escaped her. There was nothing, nothing , like hot water on aching muscles.
He saw her go into the bathhouse; he knew she was alone, unarmed, naked. Baring herself, flaunting herself like all women. She thought she was better than the others, the damned villagers, because she was on speaking terms with those with noble blood, because she had an important lover when really, she was just like all the others; pathetic commoners, with their small, unimportant lives.
Nobles protect and serve those who live within their lands, and in turn are protected by their king. It is the way of things. Commoners work the land for noble; in turn they receive protection. He remembered the long-ago lessons that he was taught; remembered and laughed. Commoners served their betters because they couldn’t take care of themselves. They lived on the sufferance of their lords, just as women depended on the same from men.
Apparently no one had taught that Riders bitch the truth, that she was nothing but a whore who served the pleasure of men. She should have been grateful for his attentions, to have a lord between her legs instead of the commoners she was used to. Women were good only for one thing, especially common ones. Hadn’t he proven it, time and again? The village whores opened their legs easily enough for him, and if they hesitated, a backhand reminded them that he was a lord— their lord, and master. They cried and sniveled like the pathetic wretched they were, but what else did women know how to do.
That damned Rider hadn’t whimpered, he remembered. When he’d struck her, he’d been sure that her stillness meant she had been dominated—and then she’d come at him. The memory stirred his rage, making his vision haze with fury. The bitch ! Some of the others might struggle and scratch when he took them, but they’d never done more than claw at him, and they’d been reminded of their place for it. But that black-haired Rider—she’d drawn a blade on him! She’d resisted his sword with it, and marked him in the process!
He would have subdued her, he knew. She might have been lucky, but soon enough he would have disarmed her. Then she would have learned her place; he’d have taught her a lesson she’d never forget before finally taking her. But then her heathen lover had shown up, the damned desert-dwelling bastard, defending the ‘honor’ of his whore. Neither one knew their place. His hands shook with the need to show it to them. How dare either one of them threaten him? Mark him? Treat him like that? He was Vanel of Border’s Keep! One day he would rule these lands, and they had treated him like some criminal. These were his lands. The word of the lord, and the lord’s son, was law.
His hands trembled again, this time with a fear he struggled to hide from himself. Raoul of Goldenlake and Malories’ Peak. He was a powerful noble, a knight and lord. And he’d seemed deadly. He could never have beaten the man in a fight, and the knowledge burned in him like acid.
The mix of fear and anger only fueled the insult of it all. Raoul was a noble—he should have stood with him, not against him! But the man had sided with the Rider bitch and her lover and, worse, threatened Vanel on behalf of all the commoners here—even the ones who served him!
He hadn’t been able to teach the Rider bitch her place, or her desert-dwelling lover. The knight had put the word of a common whore above one of a fellow noble. It could not be borne.
Vanel glared at the bathhouse into which Daine had disappeared, unaware that his eyes held a madness visible to all who saw him. It was not insanity, but a willful rage that could not understand or condone any view of the world but his own twisted one. It was a far more terrifying madness.
He gripped his sword hilt, waiting until the last of the stable hands disappeared form the yard, leaving to got to the camp or home. He had waited until his father had left the keep; no one else there would dare to object to his leaving, even if his father had confined him to the keep proper. The insult of that nearly outweighed all the others, but fear of his father dampened it. Instead, he focused on his vengeance.
He couldn’t get to the Rider bitch and wouldn’t even if he could; under the certainty that he would have bested her lay the subconscious whisper that she had beaten him , and he would not put himself in such a position again. Hence, his choice in this girl.
The girl, Daine, was a villager even if she was under the command of Sir Raoul. The villagers here knew their place, and she would certainly remember it after a few blows—he was looking forward to giving them. He could get to one of the knight’s people, and another Rider, to punish the first bitch. This one was only an archer, and wouldn’t be able to fight back; her lover was nothing but a mage—he’d seen right away that she was spreading her legs for him. He’d seen them, on the way into Snowsdale, touching each other when they had a moment alone together. He might be big, but he knew nothing of weapons, only books. No, this girl was perfect; a method of revenge, and a way to satisfy the rage, insult, and lust inside him.
With an expression that could only be described as cruel, he stalked across the yard, and towards the bathhouse.
She didn’t hear the door open, or close behind her. She didn’t hear the latch slide shut. Between the dazed relaxation she felt as her muscles unwound, and the drowsiness that her combined exhaustion and the hot water brought, her normally intent awareness of her surroundings was nonexistent.
She did hear the cold, cruel voice that spoke behind her. “Well, well—what do we have here?”
She spun, moving into a half-crouch as she did so, despite being in steaming, waist-high water, with limbs like kelp. When she saw who had spoken, in a tone that was slimy enough to oil cart axels, all relaxation fled from her muscles and she felt a nearly-painful awareness—an awareness that became more intense as Vanel’s gaze dropped to her exposed breasts, lingering with a purposeful crudeness. She felt and instinctive shudder at his gaze, a feminine reaction to being leered at. When he lifted his eyes back to her own, however, she saw something in their depths that made his leer inconsequential.
There was lust, yes, but more there was violence—the need for it, to commit it. She knew that there were men who gained satisfaction through violence—men for whom release came not from sex, but from inflicting pain. She had never understood how that could be, but now she knew that she’d come face-to-face with it.
Even as Vanel took another, leisurely look at her bare form—an action meant to intimidate and terrify her, but which only irritated her—she cursed herself steadily. Because her bow was useless in hand-to-hand situations, she’d taken to carrying a long dagger—which she’d left with her bow and saddle at the camp. Worse, far worse, she knew he magic was almost entirely drained, thanks to the healing of so many horses. Like Lena, she found herself facing a twisted rapist who needed to dominate and hurt women. Unlike Lena, she was naked, utterly unarmed, and in a small, enclosed space that limited movement.
Hand on his sword hilt, Vanel sneered at her. “What an interesting thing to see.”
“All I see is a dog who slipped his leash,” she responded coolly—and saw an answering flash of rage in his eyes. More importantly, she saw his gaze cloud, and his hands tremble. Inwardly, she smiled at having found Vanel’s weakness—his anger. This was not a man who kept his head, or his sanity, when upset. If she goaded him into losing control, she could overcome him.
If she didn’t get herself killed in the process.
She did know one thing: being raped was not an option. Not only did her skin crawl with Vanel’s gaze, much less the thought of being touched by him, Daine would not allow herself to be dominated by this pathetic excuse for a noble’s lust. No man dominated her, except for the one whom she allowed to do so. But she also didn’t plan on dying, either, so her only option was to get way, by any means possible.
As an enraged Vanel drew his sword, her first thought was: if only it were that easy.
“Bitch,” he sneered, his face twisting unattractively. “You might have a smart mouth, but you’ll learn your place.”
“Beneath you? I think not.” She edged back to the far side of the tub. She had to get out of here and on the floor—she was at too much of an disadvantage.
“Your place is to do what you are told—just like all the other common peasants here. I am a noble, a lord—you are a low-born bitch. You obey me.”
“I obey no one,” she snarled back, gripping the edge of the tub, “except those that I give my allegiance to—and even then, I follow no one blindly. You certainly don’t command me.”
“You might claim to be of Tortall, but you were born here. You know that I command you.”
“The folks of Snowsdale might have no choice in following you, but I never fit in here when I did live here—and I’m certainly not going to crawl on my belly for you just because the other folk are too scared to stand up to you!” She shoved herself up onto the floor, rolling as she did to gain an extra few feet, and rising into a crouch, facing her opponent. He looked even angrier, and some of him cruel confidence had faded, either under the loss of his temper, or on finding her on more equal ground with him. She’d have drawn blood for a shirt to cover herself with, and she knew she’d have to be careful of the damp floor, but she felt her own confidence grow.
“You’re nothing but a tramp and a bitch,” he snarled. “You spread your legs easily enough, just like the rest. You just need encouragement.” Now he smiled, and it was one that made her hair stand on end. “I’ll enjoy showing you your place, teaching you to obey your betters.”
Even as she found his rhetoric, and his constant repetition of the same insults and ideas of ‘place’ and ‘betters’, she tracked his movement as he stepped away from the door and towards her. The tub was large, but there was a reasonable amount of space around it; enough to have a bit of room to maneuver in. She estimated the amount of room she’d need, and took another prick at his temper; hoping that between it and the element of surprise, she’d get enough time.
“I don’t see any betters here, Vanel. Men aren’t above women—didn’t Lena teach you that the difference in size between us is meaningless?” Yes, she thought, seeing the flare of rage. “And nobles aren’t superior to low-born folks—we’re all human. You bleed the same color as I do.”
As he snarled, and took a step forward, placing his sword arm at the wall, she judged the distance and leapt, reaching for the flicking light of her magic at the same time. She had enough, enough to take a form so familiar to her—
—but the weakness of her magic made the shift slower, not by much, but just enough. Even as she embraced the wolf-shape, Vanel, fueled by unnatural rage, spun more quickly then she’d dared think, lashing out with his blade. The bite of steel in flesh, the bloom of pain that followed, shattered her grip on the animal’s form. She cried out with pain, and a sound that was half wolf cry, half human scream left her as she hit the ground, bleeding and dazed and human, too far from the door—and far to close to Vanel.
Though he loved and valued his Gift, and the thirst for knowledge which seemed to accompany it and had led to the path of a black robe, there were times in which Numair wished for a different Gift. In particular, the gift of Healing would have been useful on numerous occasions in which his own powerful magic was next to useless. Because of that, and his intense dislike of having to stand by, helpless, in any situation, Numair had studied until he found a way to be useful to healers. With his Gift, he was able to fuel and amplify that of the Healers, allowing to work beyond the normal reaches of their magic and increasing the effectiveness of their spells. Thus he found himself in on of the Rider’s tents, aiding Quint while the younger man worked on the minute muscles in the arm of one of his comrades, preventing the boy from losing the use of his arm.
As Quint straightened, wiping his brown of the sweat that had gathered there, Numair heard a change in the voices and sounds of the camp. His own brow creased as he recognized the tone of confusion and concern in the indistinct murmurs he could hear.
“We’ll, that should be it—what’s that?” Quint asked worriedly. “It sounds like something’s wrong.”
“Let’s go see,” Numair said, already reaching for the tent flap.
Outside, the voices were clearer, and coming from the direction of the picket lines. Several other Riders were jogging in that direction, and Numair followed, his long legs covering the ground—especially when he heard the distinct sound of fearful and enraged horses.
Riders and Own tried to calm their mounts, who became steadily more agitated despite all efforts.
“Is something wrong with them?” Quint demanded, heading for his own pair of mounts.
Numair felt his stomach clench, something hot and dark growing in his belly. Rahim approached him.
“I do not know what is wrong with them—could they be sick from their injuries? Daine did heal them—perhaps we need her again.”
“She’s not here?” Numair demanded—and the feeling of dread and panic grew.
“No—she was deeply exhausted, and wished for nothing but a bath and her bed when I sent her to the inn,” Rahim replied. Over the end of his words, a single trumpet-like call filled the clearing, rising over even the other horses. Numair knew, even before he turned to see a grey dappled pony rear, hooves flailing as the picket line she was on snapped.
“Daine,” he whispered, hardly aware that he’d spoken. Rahim, along with Raoul and Buri, who had approached, heard the soft tone, and the single name it spoke.
Numair’s paralysis broke and he spun, to come face-to-face with the three commanders. “It’s Daine—something’s wrong, it’s the only reason the horses—especially Cloud—would act like this!”
As one, all four ran for the inn, leaving the chaos of anger and panic behind—and racing for its cause.
Daine eyed her enemy, half-kneeling, half-crouched, her injured left arm cradled across her chest. The wound was deep and bled steadily, if slowly.
She could thank a damp spot on the floor for her life. Vanel had slipped when he had rushed forward, slamming his shoulder into the wall and giving her the extra moment she needed to roll away from him, placing her back to the wall. Now they watched each other across the length of the room, both considering how to go on.
She knew that saw was in serious trouble. As before, Vanel stood between her and the door, a bared sword in hand, and every intention of hurting her. Now, however, she not only knew that she didn’t have enough magic left for another shape change, but she was bleeding from not one, but two wounds; in addition to the deep sword wound that ran the length of her arm, from the back of her shoulder nearly to her elbow, she had broken the stitches in her previous wound. Both wounds burned fiercely, and left her with one nearly useless arm and one partly useless one.
Vanel panted heavily from rage and fear. He had been unprepared for her shapeshifting, and was still stunned by it.
“Rikar always said you were a demon,” he snarled. “It seems he was right.”
“You and Rikar are cut from the same cloth—the only difference is, he’s just a deluded, fanatical fool. You though—you’re a deluded, immoralfool, who thinks he can get away with anything because of his father’s title.” His face darkened. “You can’t possibly think that, even if you do rape and kill me, you could get away with it? If you aren’t arrested immediately, it’ll be because you’re dead—between Raoul and Numair, there won’t be enough of you left to bury.”
“Do you think they really give a damn about you? You’re nothing but a bastard—and a whore just like the one that bore you. The knight might be angry, but only because I interfered with his authority, not because of you . And the mage? Why should he care? He’ll have found another mistress inside of a month.”
It was Vanel’s cruel words, his attempt to demoralize her that in fact fueled her. She would not let this corrupt bastard end the life she’d fought to build; she wouldn’t leave Numair alone with the pain of losing the one he loved, or the guilt she knew he’d feel if she died. Damn him, Vanel was not going to win!
“Did I say deluded? I should have said mad—you know nothing of them, or me.” Holding out her right hand, she focused entirely on it—all her dwindling magic, all her determination—and watched the change come to it slowly, haltingly. Soon, in place of her own human hand, she bore a bear’s paw—complete with vicious six-inch claws.
She saw his face pale, his eyes bulge at the sight. Demoralization and intimidation worked both ways; with his eyes on her new appendage, she reached down—and scored deep, raw wounds in the wooded floor, the sound of claws on wood harsh.
Blindly, Vanel charged her, slashing with his blade like an untrained page but still managing to score a few shallow slices—just as Daine managed to leave five angry furrows in his arm. On a howl of pain, the noble leapt back, gasping for breath and eyeing her with terror—and maddened rage.
They were now trapped in a stalemate: Daine would not give in, not be cowed, and Vanel couldn’t wound her badly enough to overcome her. She could not escape—her reach wasn’t long enough to harm him, even with claws, without putting herself in lethal reach of his blade, and he was still between her and the door. More than that, though, she knew that Vanel could not let her live—his purpose here had been to take a twisted revenge on Lena, Rahim, and Raoul, and also to reassure himself of his own views on the world. The fact that he was unable to ‘punish’ her, or rape her, only increased the uncertainty and lack of power he felt from his failed attempt with Lena. It was either kill her, or have his own world, self-opinion and worth, and philosophy shattered. In his eyes, she could not live.
She refused to die.
Unfortunately, while Vanel was a fool and an immoral bastard, he had a great deal of self-preservation; he knew the damage she could do with her claws, and wouldn’t get close enough to let her use them—unless he lost his temper.
“Pathetic,” she sneered, drawing on every drop of disgust and rage she felt towards him—it was a very great deal. “This is the second time a nearly unarmed woman has beat you, even with a sword. No wonder your father locked you away in the keep like a naughty little—you’ve all the skill and strength of one.”
“Stupid bitch ,” he snarled—but didn’t come forward. “You don’t know anything ! How could you? You just an ignorant bastard from a meaningless village!”
“If the village is meaningless, and you rule over it, doesn’t that make you meaningless too? And I might be ignorant, but I know how Lena marked you with nothing but a dagger—turned you down, refused your advances, and then defeated you like a green recruit in a training exercise.”
“I would have beaten her! I would have made her pay! If her barbarian lover hadn’t come!”
She laughed. “Rahim? He beat you even worse than she did!”
“Like a coward! Sneaking up on a warrior, just like a desert savage! I could have beaten him, too, as soon as I got my sword.”
His face was red, so deep a red she was certain he didn’t have a drop of blood anywhere else in his body. In another minute, she was sure, he’d be foaming at the mouth—so much the better. “But Raoul came.”
“Traitor! Taking the side of that low-born whore and her savage lover over mine —a fellow noble! Bastard!”
“You aren’t Raoul’s ‘fellow’ anything—you’re a coward and a rapist, and he’s a knight of Tortall—and he had you whimpering like a dog.” He was close, so close, to losing it. “Lena and I laughed—she said you next to wet yourself when he got a hold you.”
With a nearly inhuman cry of rage, Vanel charged her, sword held before him like a lance. She stood her ground—
—until the last moment, when she shifted to the side, just enough to dodge the blade. With a sick thunk , the first three inches of the tip sunk into the wood of the wall, trapping the sword. Vanel looked baffled for a heartbeat, but his mad anger still held sway, and he fought to draw out the blade.
With the last of the strength in her left arm, she reached out, grabbing the sword blade just below the hilt, ignoring the bite of steel into flesh as she held the weapon immobile. She pushed herself up, her right arm and the bear’s paw at the end arcing up towards Vanel. She had only one chance to fell him—
—except he wasn’t there. She fell forward with her own momentum when she struck at empty air, losing the tremulous hold on her partial shape change. Pain and the tunnel vision that battle brought left her stunned and baffled, her eyes flickering madly, looking for her enemy. She found him, across the room, against the wall.
Her vision cleared, and the world returned. As it did, she saw that Vanel wasn’t merely against the wall, but pinned there by the angry glares of Raoul and Buri, as well as their respective blades—and black and silver fire, which held him dangling two feet off the floor.
She struggled to her feet, only to fall back to her knees. “Wha—”
Jumbled voices assaulted her ears, but she could hardly make them out, until one rose over the rest.
She turned away from the sight of Vanel. Rahim stood by the door—warped and splintered from his shoulder against it—but it was the man only a few bare feet from her that drew all her attention. His face was drawn in worry, and he held a hand out towards her, as one did an injured and wild creature, trying to draw it to you so you could heal it.
“I—I’m alright. He didn’t—he wanted to, but—he didn’t—” She looked up at Numair, imploring, seeking, as the last of her desperate strength fled. “Numair?”
He leapt forward and caught her as she slumped, still conscious but limp and trembling from the aftermath of the last quartermark—which had seemed to be an eternity. His voice, the words indistinct, but the tone soothing and reassuring, washed over her. She closed her eyes on a sigh. “I’m alright.” It was not a question or an answer, but an affirmation. She was safe, in his arms; she was alive. She was alright.
Numair barely remembered the journey from the encampment to the inn, nor Rahim and Raoul slamming their shoulders against the bathhouse door. He didn’t remember using his Gift to rip Vanel away from the corner, where he’d half-believed he’s see Daine’s lifeless body.
But he would never forget the way she’d looked, her lips drawn in a snarl as she searched, wild-eyed for her attacker; the way she’d been blind to himself and her friends. He’d never forget the sight of her, kneeling, sweat and blood mingling to run down her arms, pooling on the wood beneath her.
He barely knew how to approach her; she’d seemed so like an injured raptor; dazed, pained, weak—but still ready to fight, to beat it’s wings against any hand, friend or foe. He’d have expected her to either attack, or simply break, if he touched her. So, when Raoul and Buri demanded if she was alright, he ignored them, and held out a hand to her, letting her accept or refuse it as she chose.
“I—I’m alright. He didn’t—he wanted to, but—he didn’t—” she struggled to reassure him—even in her injured state—and the knowledge the Vanel had not raped her caused some of the burning panic he’d felt from the moment the first horse had seemingly gone mad had faded slightly. Then she had implored him, her strength vanishing to leave her completely limp, eradicating his concern over approaching her. More of his lingering fear had vanished as he held her close, safe and alive.
Even as he cradled her close, he could feel her blood soaking into his shirt, feel the shivering of her body—and anger came in to fill the gap that fear had left. He turned his gaze to where Buri and Raoul held Vanel, and spoke harshly. “Get him out of here, before I finish it—and him .”
With a nod, Raoul hauled Vanel towards the door roughly, ignoring his protests and slurs. Rahim joined him, and between the two Own, they half-led, half-dragged the noble from the bathhouse.
Numiar set Vanel from his mind—for now—knowing Daine needed him with her more that she needed the bastard who’d hurt her dead. He held her as close as he dared, trying to warm her as she couldn’t stop shivering, despite the warm air of the room. He didn’t realize that he was rocking her gently, murmuring gently to sooth her as he would a child. All he knew was that she’d managed to raise her arm enough to bury her fingers in his shirt, clinging with all her remaining strength.
Buri came over with the towels that had lain in the corner. Without taking his eyes off Daine’s face or releasing her, he wrapped one of the bath sheets around her, covering her bare form. Buri pressed the other to the long gash on her arm.
“She’s bleeding pretty badly, Numair; she’s even broken the stitches from earlier.” The concern was obvious in the K’mir’s voice and face as she watched the towel in her hands become stained with her young friend’s blood.
“She needs Quint. Numair raised a hand to stroke her cheek. She was deathly pale. “Daine? Can you hear me, magelet?”
“Ummm,” she managed as her eyes half-opened, then fell shut again. “Numair.”
“Yes, sweet. I’m taking you upstairs now; you need a healer.”
At her childlike tone, he winced and leaned down to press a gentle kiss against her forehead. “I know.” Shifting her, taking a more secure hold on her trembling form, he stood, moving towards the door. He barely noticed Buri walking alongside him.
Her blood was on his hands, his clothes. He could hardly bare it.
This wasn’t like the injuries she sustained fighting bandits, or defending Tortall; it wasn’t anything like seeing her suffer from exhaustion and weakness after draining her magic. All of those were painful, and hard for him to witness. He often wish he could shield her from pain, and grief, and loss; despite that wish, he knew that, given the chance, he could not do so. Daine’s strength, her willingness to fight and defend, to do what was right even as she struggled to decided what was right made her the woman he loved more than life. So he only helped her heal—as she did him when he drained himself of his Gift serving Jon and his realm.
This, however, was different. Injuries from battle were expected and understood; those she fought did so for their own purposes, whether for their own country, or to protect themselves from being arrested, as with bandits. Vanel had not hurt her in battle; he hadn’t been fighting for a purpose, or out of fear or even greed. He had attacked Daine—had marked her flesh with steel because of his own belief that he had the right to take what he wanted, to place himself before all others. Because he believed she was worthless—this beautiful woman who held so much warmth and loyalty, love and humor wrapped in practicality and selflessness.
“Thought I’d—be like others—village girls—too afraid to fight—a whore—since I’m—bastard—” she murmured, her words broken and hardly coherent—but clear enough for Numair’s rage to grow, fueled by her unknown support of his own furious musings. “Fought—wasn’t about t’—let ‘im touch me—die first—” Once again, Daine fought to open her eyes, the lids opening just enough for her gaze to met his from under her long lashes. The dazed gleam in her blue-grey orbs receded for a moment, leaving her gaze clear as she said, softly, “Didn’t want t’ die—I won’t leave y’ ‘lone.”
As her eyes fell closed, this time sending his love into true unconsciousness, Numair drew her closer than ever. “Nor I, sweet. I won’t leave you alone—and I won’t lose you.”
Forgeting Buri’s presence, he stared down at his love’s relaxed face even as he took the stairs to the second floor. In the same calm, gentle and determined tone of voice, he added, “And that bastard will pay.”
Buri swallowed hard, agreeing with him—but still unnerved by that tone.
She woke slowly, curses burning her tongue, and then the air, as aches and pains assaulted her, each making itself known with increasing violence as she became aware and awake.
“Such language,” a female voice spoke quietly—shocked, amused—and just a touch impressed. “Did ye learn that in Tortall as well, then?”
Startled by the unknown voice so close to her, Daine shot up in bed, alert, wary—and groaned deeply as the her bruises and cuts sang even more fiercely. She also dislodged Kitten, who had been resting across her ankles—and who now chattered fiercely at her.
“Ah, well that was daft.”
Daine opened her eyes to glare at the woman beside her bed. “You startled me—what did you expect me to do when I heard a stranger nearby? Lay still and maybe let an enemy slit my throat?—Kitten, enough!”
Nonia looked appalled by the reference, and regretful, as the dragonet curled up in a ball, muttering darkly. “Ah—I’m sorry, then—Master Salmalin an’ th’ others warned me not t’ surprise ye while ye slept, or while ye were waking. I forgot, I s’ppose.”
Daine glared a moment longer, then sighed. “Forget it. What are you doing here?”
“Yer healer, Master Quint, asked me t’ keep watch on ye. He did a fine job of fixin’ ye up, by the way—ye’d be in a much sadder state now if he hadn’t.”
Memories, which had not been far from the surface, swamped Daine, her aches seeming to grow as she remembered receiving them. Taking a deep, calming breath, she regained control, focusing on each injury so she could assess the damage.
A heavy bandage covered her left arm from shoulder to elbow, the linen gauze extending to cover her shoulder blade as well. Beneath the bandage, she could feel the pull and itch of stitches. Another wrap wound around her right bicep, covering the wound he had received at the bandits’ hands. Dozens of aches, some minor, some the deep pain of bruises that went to the bone, were scattered along her torso and limbs, including her right hip and knee, and along her shoulders. She knew it was from the fall she’d taken after losing control of the wolf-shape. She’d had no control on her landing, and hadn’t been able to fall properly, or roll to disperse the force of the fall, and the bruises were mostly from her impact with the ground. She considered herself fortunate that she hadn’t sprained, pulled, or broken something in the fall.
Slightly more worrisome was the bandage on her left hand; she remembered grabbing Vanel’s blade with it, though she’d gripped it just below the hilt, where the edges were much blunter and less likely to do damage. Carefully, she flexed her fingers, relieved when they all responded. She felt a tug on the wound, and a mild burning, but nothing to make her think she’d done anything irreparable to it.
“Quint healed yer hand quite a bit, an’ th’ mark on yer right arm, so’s you’d have use of it; th’ bigger cut he stitched up, with some healin’ t’ stop the bleedin’. And there’s a healin’ spell laid on all of ‘em, and a minor one on th’ rest of ye, so ye mend faster,” Nonia explained. “He left th’ bruises for now, but for th’ spell; said ye were well used t’ havin’ ‘em, and he was t’ drawn from all the healin’ t’day t’ do it—there’s still a few in th’ camp that need tendin’ later on.”
Daine absorbed that, nodding in perfect understanding—healers, especially one in the field, tending soldiers, had to be expedient and efficient with their Gift. A healer who wasted magic healing bruises might have nothing left for a life-threatening injury.
Suddenly, realization sunk in. “Nonia?”
“Why are you here?”
Nonia frowned at her. “I already told ye—don’t you remember?”
“Of course—I meant why are you , specifically, here?”
“Because I asked t’, of course.” At Daine’s flat, disbelieving look, Nonia looked away, focusing on Kitten. “She’s a lovely thin’, isn’t she? An’ a bit like a human little—all mischief an’ temper an’ curiosity.”
“Nonia,” Daine demanded sternly, seeing the attempt to change the subject for what it was.
“I did ask t’ stay—ye needed a healer to be with ye, and yers is still needed at th’ camp with th’ others. I thought it best for all.” She looked quickly at Daine, then away. “An’ I wanted to—to thank ye.”
That left Daine speechless for nearly a full minute—a very difficult feat. “Thank me? For what?” she finally managed.
“For th’ bandits—helpin’ to stop ‘em. An’ for Lord Vanel.” When Daine looked blank at the last, the older midwife sighed.
“I’ve more than one girl come t’ me after he was at ‘em—most of ‘em wouldn’t have even thought t’ fight, even if they didn’t say him ‘aye’ or ‘nay’. They didn’t do a thing t’ stop ‘im—but he still hurt ‘em a fair bit. There’s been a few, too, who came t’ me a month or two after, carryin’ more than marks as a reminder, an’ wanted help with that as well.”
Daine said nothing, knowing, from her ma, that such an admission was not lightly made, even to a woman—and never to a man. Though it was women who were midwives, and women who carried children, men like Rikar and Hakkon would have rural midwives killed for such doings—in places such as Snowsdale, even the charm against pregnancy that Daine wore was not openly used or carried; after all, sex should only be between husband and wife, and was meant to produce children. A charm against it, or abortion of a pregnancy, only fuelled, or were the result of, promiscuity—at least in the rigid and controlling views of a number of men.
Even her ma, who had never followed the strict rules of the community she lived in, did not openly do what Nonia had implied; the healer had made a confession that left her, quite literally at Daine’s mercy. A single word of it, and the woman would likely be killed by the people she served.
Daine relaxed slightly, and nodded for the other woman to go on. Nonia did, her own fine tension fading when Daine made no reference to the dangerous information. “There was nothin’ much for us t’ do about ‘im, what with Lord Brenen as th’ magistrate. Brenen, he’s a fair lord, but he would never take sides against ‘is son over a village maid. But ye ,” she went on, “ye can speak against ‘im, an’ Brenen’ll have t’ turn Vanel to the King’s Justice, as yer friend’s’ll threaten to take it t’ the king—ours an’ theirs. He’ll finally be punished, an’ everyone’ll know what he is, and what he’s done. So thank you.”
“I’m glad Vanel will be punished—but I do wish I could have managed in another way, one that didn’t ache so much.” At Nonia’s chuckle, Daine sighed and leaned back. “So, Vanel will face the King’s Justice?”
“Aye, for attackin’ a delegate of another land on Gallan soil. They’re talkin’ on it now, downstairs—a trial like, t’ see if they can convict ‘im now, or if they have to take ‘im to the king.”
“Huh, that’s right—Raoul has the right to demand his immediate execution, as long as there’s proof he harmed me.”
“There’s plenty of that ,” she muttered, nodding to Daine’s bandages.
Daine was about to agree, when the truth came crashing down on her. She sat straight up again, ignoring Nonia’s wide eyes and protests, grabbing the woman’s arm. “Who’s talking on it? Who’s down there?”
“Half th’ town, all that’ll fit in th’ common room, an’ the baron an’ the knights, Lord Brenen, some of th’ Riders and those King’s Own of yours, an’ the commanders of ‘em—oh, an’ Master Salmalin. Here, now, what are ye about? Ye’ve lost too much blood to be up an’ about!”
Daine ignored the healer, struggling out of bed. As she stood, a wave of dizziness struck her, and she was forced to close her eyes while it passed. After a moment, she opened them again, ignoring the weakness and shakiness of her limbs while she cast about for her clothes. She was unaware that she was swearing under her breath.
“What’s this about, Daine? Have ye gone daft—ye’d think the inn was afire, or someone was about t’ die!”
“Someone might,” she ground out, grabbing the only article of clothing in the room beside the nightshirt she was wearing, her grey dress. She assumed that Nonia, very traditional in dress, would have set it out instead of her breeches in case she needed to get to the garderobe. She fought to remove her nightshirt, cursing her lack of mobility with her arms.
“Stop that! Ye’ll pull yer stitches—again!” Nonia helped her with the shirt, but only because it was already half over her head. “Who might die?”
“Vanel! Numair’ll kill him, given half a chance.” She grabbed up a loincloth and breastband, struggling into both.
“Why?” Nonia was truly puzzled.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t heard that we’re betrothed? I thought it was all over the village.”
“Aye, ‘is words with Hakkon are well known. But—”
“Nonia,” Daine said flatly, knowing she needed the healer’s cooperation to get dressed and down the stairs without hurting herself. “I ripped down part of an Imperial Palace seeking revenge when I thought he’d been killed— before we were involved as lovers.” At Nonia’s wide-eyed expression, she went on. “Numair threatened to tear out Hakkon’s tongue for insulting me—and I assure you, it wasn’t an empty threat. When he’s in a rage, Numair can do damn near anything to protect those he loves— what do you think he’ll do to a man who tried to rape and kill me?”
Nonia stared at her for a minute, before silently picking up the gown and holding it up above Daine’s head for her to slip on. Once it was, she reached for the laces.
“Daine,” she asked hesitantly. “Isn’t Vanel t’ be executed in any case?”
“Yes—that’s not the point.” Impatiently, she let Nonia gather her hair up, tugging a brush through it and tying it back loosely with a ribbon. “Vanel deserves execution—but Numair shouldn’t be the one to do it, not like this. He’d probably never regret it, but it would still weigh down on him, to take a life coldly, in vengeance instead of defense. It might be justified, but it would be a weight on his soul, and Numair is too much a peaceful man not to feel it. He can fight, he can kill—but he feels the burden of it. I don’t want him to bear this one.” She stomped her feet into her boots, and straightened to find Nonia watching her with a curious envy. “What?”
“Ye really love ‘im.”
“Of course I do—I’m marrying him, aren’t I?”
Nonia shook her head wearily, looking her age. “It doesn’t always—or often—work that way, lass. Come on then, ye’re not takin’ the stairs alone.”
At the door, Daine paused, gripping the badger’s claw and its accompaniments; Numair’s ring never left her, but because of her shapechanging, she couldn’t wear it on her hand. Right now, though, she didn’t have to shift. The ring was a symbol, not only of betrothal, but of promise, and possession—and acceptance of both. Maybe…
Fumbling, she managed to get the ring off the chain, and slid it onto her left hand. It fit perfectly, as it had the first time Numair had given it to her. She remembered the expression on his face, in his eyes, when he’d done so; perhaps the sight of it on her finger again would help cool his rage. Deep down, she wanted it on her hand, a kind of shield, when she faced Vanel again. Whether it helped with Numair or not, she felt better for its weight on her hand.
The tension in the common room was thick enough to cut, and Daine’s appearance did not ease it. Eyes turned to her when she entered, but an equal number were on the scene playing out by the hearth.
Vanel was seated, Conrik and Relwyn standing over him, bound like a common criminal—a fact that did not please him in the least. His father stood, stern and forbidding, behind him—but somehow, still separate. Brenen had not turned against his son, but neither was he aiding him.
Raoul, Buri, Lena, Rahim and Evin, along with Marcus and Cedwin, stood facing the villain, with the village looking on. Numair also faced Vanel—but everyone in the room, including the Tortallans, gave him a wide berth. There were a number of uneasy glances thrown his way, and Daine could well guess why; even facing his back, she could tell that his expression cast the one he’d worn previously when confronting Hakkon into pale shadow—his cold rage was palatable, an aura that surrounded him as surely as his Gift did—and was nearly as visible.
She was surprised that Buri or Raoul weren’t trying to calm him—until she noticed Rikar addressing the room in general. He was obviously supporting Hakkon, and Numair’s combined anger at the two was more than any of his friends could hope to steady.
When she moved away from the stairs and through the crowd—strangely reminiscent of the first night of her return—there were stares and whispers. But this time, though no one approached her, and the voices weren’t particularly friendly, neither were they hostile. Daine was reminded of Nonia’s declaration of thanks over the bandits and Vanel. It was just barely possible that she was not alone in her revised opinion of Daine’s sanity and worth.
Unfortunately, Numair and the others didn’t notice her approach, and weren’t distracted by the motion of the crowd. By the time she reached the edge of the crowd of observers, the tension had built too high—and was about to shatter.
“It is obvious what happened,” Rikar was saying with the air of the righteous, absolutely confident that he was right—and that everyone would agree with him. “Daine invited Lord Vanel’s attentions. This accusation is merely an attempt to save face by our guests—particularly Master Salmalin, who had been lured and betrayed by her. It is in her nature to lust, and to fuel the lust of men.”
Daine bit down on her tongue to avoid letting lose with it; apparently, Rikar had cast her as the villain in this piece. She glanced at Numair—something Rikar, even in his righteousness, could not seem to do. She cursed inwardly at her lover’s expression—flat and dark, with only his eyes revealing the depth of his anger. It was quite possible that Vanel wasn’t the only one at risk of dying this night.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, Priest,” one of the villagers, a middle-aged man who had taken over the falconing trade of the area when Hakkon became headman, spoke up. “But that don’t seem right, sir. Daine, she fought off th’ bandits—was hurt doin’ so. An’ these folk,” he waved a hand at the Tortallans, “say she’s right honest, not one t’ act so. An’ she was fair hurt—bleedin’ an’ all from sword wounds. Timis said how th’ bathhouse looked like a battle’d gone on. That don’t seem like it was invited.”
There were quiet murmurs of agreement, and several other villagers spoke up—from within the anonymity of the crowd—about Daine’s participation in hunting the bandits. Daine was so shocked by the defense that she fell speechless, hardly aware of Nonia squeezing her good hand lightly. As a child, any accusation against her stood up on the basis of her birth—no evidence or fact overcame the label of ‘bastard’. Now, however, that title seemed less important than her actions.
The irony of it was almost funny—she’d tried half her life to be judged by these people based on her own merit, not the circumstances of her birth. Now, that she’d finally seen that desire fulfilled, it was without design—and she no longer cared what they thought.
Still, it was nice to know that the villagers could look at her and see, not Sarra’s bastard, but Daine—even if it took a bandit hoard of sixty to change their opinions.
Rikar’s face burned red with fury at the defiance of the villagers. His confident tone eroded into an angry demand. “And who’s word should we value more—the mad bastard get of a whore, or our lord’s son?”
Of course Rikar didn’t actually care about Vanel, only about the favor of his father and himself. He was hoping to secure more power through the support of the Lord Holder and his heir. He was so blinded by his desire to punish Daine for some imagined wrong, and but his lust for control and authority that he could not see that nothing could save Vanel now.
He turned to Hakkon, looking for his habitual ally. The headman eyed the crowd, and then let his gaze flicker over Numair and the expression the mage wore—before looking quickly away—and then back to the villagers. Unlike Rikar, Hakkon didn’t find power through controlling and intimidating others. His authority came from his ability to give folks what they wanted—and to manipulate them into believing that they did want something. Whatever his personal feelings might be, the tide against Daine had turned—and Hakkon would not risk the opinions of the village to stand against it.
Rikar’s lips turned white with rage when he saw that Hakkon would not speak. He cast a dismissive glance at the headman before going on to speak: “Do not allow this appearance of valor to blind you to the truths you already know; that Daine is a bastard, and therefore her nature is corrupted. Remember that she did run mad—we all saw its results! If you need proof that under the surface she is what we have always believed her to be—what I have always held her to be—remember that she transforms into a wolf without the aid of a Gift! Only an evil creature could take the form of that beast!”
There was a quiet murmur in the room; most common folk were not fond of wolves, particularly farmers, who saw them as a threat to their animals. There were also people who truly believed that wolves were evil, creatures of darkness and cruelty. Daine was prepared for the small support that she had apparently earned among Snowsdale to vanish. Surprisingly, even as Buri looked about to speak, another of the villagers—Timis Masters, the innkeepers—spoke. “Ah, that’s fair true, Priest—but she’s also made herself other beasties as well—a bird and a cat, t’ name a few. If she’s evil ‘cause of the shape she takes, then how come she kin take others? It’s s’pposed t’ be from a strange Gift, ain’t it? Wild Magic, or some such?”
“Aye, that’s what it’s called,” another villager said. “And didn’t th’ lass turn t’ a falcon? Those beasts belong t’ Mithros, don’t they? Hawks an’ eagles an’ the like?”
“Birds of prey such as eagles and falcons are, indeed, associated with Mithros and the sun, just as the cat is associated with the Mother Goddess, and the moon,” Cedwin said firmly, with an air of authority which drew everyone’s gaze. “For that matter, Mistress Daine has a special affinity with horses, over which the Goddess also rules. She can, in fact, take the shape of any animal, and her ability to do so comes not from any pact with evil, as Master Rikar implies, but from a very natural source of magic.”
The villagers seemed to accept that; the confirmation by one of their own was far more reassuring than anything that the Tortallans could have said. Daine was surprised by their easy acceptance of it, but perhaps seeing her change shape had helped—it was hard to deny such proof. She supposed it was good she’d shown off by taking several forms; however accommodating the villagers seemed to be now, if they had only seen her take a wolf-shape, things could have been sticky as so many of them believed that wolves were terrible animals. She could argue until she was blue with such folk about the wolves’ nature, but it would do little good. Dunlath was one of the only places where people had come to understand her four-footed brothers, and it was truly unique.
As Rikar turned red, then white with rage, Marcus stepped forward while Daine wondered if she should step forward, possibly starting up a fight with Rikar and Vanel, or stay where she was.
“We have strayed from the issue at hand, which is that Mistress Daine was seriously hurt by Vanel of Border’s Peak. Further evidence of Vanel’s purpose is his attack on Lena Fletcher of the Riders only a few days past, during which he instigated a fight, and physically harmed Mistress Fletcher. At the time, he was informed that such actions—harming a member of a delegation from another realm—was an act of war. This is true—furthermore, as committing an act of war against another realm can be considered against the interests of this kingdom, and in violation of the treaty between our realms, these actions are also treasonous.”
“Surely you can see that these accusations are false, Baron,” Rikar said in an integrating tone, obviously attempting to regain control of the situation, even as Vanel protested—only to be silenced by Conrik’s heavy hand on his shoulder. “The word of both these women can be considered questionable, and no other has spoken against Lord Vanel or accused him of such things.”
There were several snarls from the Riders, and Buri spoke in a cold voice. “That’s my soldier you’re accusing of lying, Priest—watch yourself.”
Rikar cast a dissmisive glance at her, then focused back on Marcus, having decided that he was the only one who mattered. “The women of the Riders are—not what we could consider honorable. They have abandoned decency, and defied the order of nature in their pursuits. And the simple fact is that Daine has whored herself before—not only does she behave inappropriately with the mage Numair Salmalin, but she lives among the Riders—including the men. And I suspect she did so before being banished from the village: more than once I saw immoral behaviour despite her youth—”
His disgusting implication was cut off abruptly by a familiar sight—black fire around the man’s throat. Daine cursed and started for her lover.
“I won’t kill you for that just yet, priest,” Numair said coldly, “but only because there are more important matters to deal with first. When they are settled, I will deal with you—in the meantime, hold your tongue.”
Everyone in the room hesitated for a moment, waiting, able to see that Numair was riding the ragged edge of control. After a moment, Marcus spoke. “Ah, Master Numair? Perhaps you could release him?”
“I’m tired of his filth—I’m sure that Vanel can defend himself aptly.”
The Baron considered that for a moment, but evidently decided not to argue. Rikar struggled against the magic that held him silent, clawing at the fire around his throat, only to freeze when Numair leveled a deadly stare at him. In silence, the priest fumed and brooded. More than one villager seemed to find the sight amusing, which only made Rikar’s expression darker.
Calmly, Daine shook off Nonia and took the last few steps towards Numair even as Marcus turned to address Vanel. When she took the mage’s arm, he turned his gaze abruptly to her, the dangerous anger softening slightly when he saw who it was. He wrapped an arm around her waist, supporting her. “You should be resting, sweet. What are you doing down here?”
“Stopping you from doing something foolish—but I don’t mind you gagging Rikar. The look actually suits him.”
He looked ready to protest and send her to bed when a number of voices interrupted, demanding to know how she was. Daine took a few moments to reassure her friends, and to detail her injuries to Marcus, even though he’s already heard them from Quint. Most of her friends thought she should be resting—a sentiment she silently agreed with, as she was shaky and slightly dizzy, in addition to her aches. All she said, however, was, “Then we’d best finish this quickly, as I’m not about to miss it.”
“Mistress Daine, if you don’t mind, would you recount the events of the afternoon?” Marcus asked.
Beginning with the return to the camp, Daine relayed the entire thing in a calm, emotionless voice much like the one she reported to her commanders in; despite that, she refused to look at Vanel while speaking, not wanting the sight of him to bring images to her mind. More than once, she trembled slightly while speaking. Though it didn’t show in her voice, she knew Numair absorbed each flinch, and that it fueled his anger. She tightened her grip on him, trying to reassure him.
When she was finished, there were a number of dark looks directed at Vanel, and the Gallan nobles and knights had set expressions. Marcus thanked her, and then turned to Vanel. Only then did Daine glance at her attacker, refusing to be afraid of him, or her memories. Hadn’t she proved by returning here that she could face the pains of the past and triumph? Vanel’s face was flushed with anger, and his eyes flitted back and forth slightly, glancing at each angry or cold face.
“Vanel of Border’s Keep, do you have anything to say in your defense?”
“I didn’t do anything to her that she didn’t want; they might fight, but all women want it, they’re all whores under it all,” he snarled, pushed beyond reason by being sided against. “Her protectors might say different, but she’s just a common tart—it’s her duty to submit to her lord. If she fought, it was because she didn’t know her place!”
His words had the tone of ramblings, deluded and unhealthy, drawing disgusted, frightened, and angry glances. His father stared at him with a blank face, as if trying to convince himself that this was actually his son.
Daine was far too busy to notice.
“No!” she told Numair firmly, stepping between her lover and her attacker. “Numair, there’s no point!”
“There’s very much a point—he hurt you,” Numair said flatly, taking a step forward. He ignored Raoul’s retraining hand on his shoulder, but glanced down at her when she refused to move out of his way. “Daine.”
“No,” she said, her tone quieter, gentling. She laid a hand on his chest—the one that bore his ring, a fact that drew his eyes immediately. “Listen to me—I know you want him dead. He will be; you heard the baron, he committed an act of war, and of treason. Raoul already promised to see him executed if he did anything like this—”
“And I’ll see it carried out,” the knight interrupted, “if I have to wield the executioner’s blade myself.”
“You see? He’ll be punished.”
“It’s not enough,” Numair snarled. “You didn’t see yourself—Bright Goddess, Daine, you could have lost your arm! He was going to—”
“I know what he was going to try to do—I was there.” She felt a little sorry for it when he winced, but felt justified when he closed his eyes, some of his icy anger fading. “That’s the point, Numair—he tried , but I fought him. I know you want to protect me, Numair,” she said softly. “I understand it. But I protected myself, I defended myself. You don’t need to avenge me, because there’s nothing to avenge. I never thought, even for a heartbeat, that he was right.” Numair’s eyes flew open, and she explained. “He said that I was just a bastard, that he was my lord—that it was my place and his right. Five, six years ago, I would have hesitated, Numair. I wouldn’t have done nothing to defend myself, because that’s not my way, but his words would have made me pause, would have seemed to have some grain of truth to them. I know now that nobles are meant to protect commoners; that who you are is based on your merit, your actions, not your birth. I learned that in Tortall, for you and my friends. I told you that I was glad we came here; that I had been able to move on, and put aside the past by coming back. Even after this, I’m still glad we came. I don’t want you to hurt him because there’s no need to; he’ll be punished by his own laws and king, the ones he thinks give him the right to do whatever he wishes by right of birth. All I want now is to go home.” She lifted her right hand to his face, holding his gaze with her own. She’d seen his eyes go from burning midnight to warm velvet, and prepared to strike the death-blow to his desire for revenge. He would never think back to this time without being angry about it, but he wouldn’t fly into a deadly rage, either. “We did what we came here to do: we fought the bandits, cleaned out their nest, and taught the villagers ways to defend themselves. The alliance between Galla and Tortall has been strengthened. I faced my past and accepted that they couldn’t hold any longer; I even remembered good things, and met Lori again. Goddess bless, the villagers have even said that they don’t think I’m a monster, or mad! That’s a fair bit work, Numair, and now I just want to go home: I want get Cory settled in at the Palace, and help Ouna and Sarge with the trainees, and make sure that the realm hasn’t fallen to pieces without us. I want to take Jon up on his promise; three weeks at the tower, just the two of us, without war or immortals or Riders or well-meaning friends or treaty delegations. That is all that I want.”
He ignored the presence of half the village, the Riders, their friends, and their enemies, resting his brow against her own, his own hand coming up to cup her cheek gently while he cradled her other to his heart. “All right, magelet,” he murmured, drawing back to kiss her forehead. “That sounds just fine.”
Marcus waited a moment longer, allowing the tender moment to hold, before turning back to Vanel, who sneered at the lovers. “Vanel of Border’s Keep, by my authority as King’s Representative, I hereby place you under arrest for treason against the Crown, and for acts of war against an ally kingdom. By my own decree you have no suitable defense for your actions, and as such I pronounce that you shall be executed for your crimes.”
“You can’t execute me! I’m a noble! The heir to Border’s Keep!” Vanel raged, his eyes wheeling with fear—but also hate, as he looked at those who stood against him.
“Not any longer,” Lord Brenen’s voice cut across his son’s ranting. “You have acted against everything that nobility stands for and have committed treason against the Crown we serve. It is in part my fault,” he continued, a touch of regret in his stern visage. “I knew how you behaved towards the women of my lands, but ignored it. I acted as a father instead of a Lord Holder, and refused to punish you for what you did. Perhaps that is what fueled your belief that you had the right to act in any way you saw fit towards the commoners in these lands. But I will no longer protect you, and you will have to face your punishment without rank to shield you. I hereby disown you as my son and heir.” He turned away in the silence that followed his decree. “The only deference you will have to your birth is that you will be executed by beheading instead of hanging, like the bandit prisoners; but you be executed, and at the same time as them. Gods have mercy on you,” he added, “for I cannot.” With that final pronouncement, Lord Brenen walked away from his former son, and out of the inn.
There was a long-held silence as the room stood in shock, before the quiet was broken by Vanel’s enraged shouts; barely coherent demands and threats. Marcus gestured to the knights, who then dragged the struggling man to his feet and away, to be held in the inn cellar—which doubled as a cell at times—until his execution. There would be no trial, as there would have been in Tortall; Marcus, with his Crown Authority, had final say, and had already judged and sentenced Vanel. Painfully, Daine missed home, and could see that her friends did as well.
In the uneasy atmosphere left by Vanel’s departure, Daine spoke, nudging Numair. “I think you can let Rahim go now, love.”
There were a few chuckles, and Numair scowled at the priest, who looked both desperate and outraged. On a sigh, Numair waved his hand, and the black and silver fire faded. Even as it did so, people were turning away to go about their business. Daine leaned against Numair, feeling her limbs weigh heavily with weariness.
“Demon-spawn! Witch!” the grating words sliced through the room, causing everyone to turn towards where Rikar stood, livid with anger and hate. He pointed to Daine, nearly shrieking instead of shouting. “You are a demon who corrupts men, beguiles them with lust and witchcraft to steal their will, just as your whore mother did!”
Everyone stared in shock at the man who had, apparently, snapped under the final weight of humiliation and distain. But even as Daine stepped forward to confront the man, tired of his slurs and wanting only to rest and heal so she could leave this place, Numair held her back. He had seen something in Rikar’s face, and realization burned though him.
Before Rikar could speak again, Numair did. “You wanted Sarra.”
Rikar, and half the room, gapped at him. The head priest shook his head in denial, but he’d seen confirmation of his deduction, and went on. “You courted her, didn’t you? You wooed her, but she refused you—and then bore an illegitimate child by an unknown man. She not only denied you, but everything you offered, even stability, to be with another.”
“I promised her everything!” he shouted, rationality gone, his long-held, festering anger revealed to everyone. “I thought she was an angel, pure and perfect—but she wasn’t! She was a seductress who drew me in, toyed with me—she never let me go! She held me snared in her web, even after she took some vagabond to her bed and bore a witch just like her! I know what you are!” he raged at Daine. “I knew from the moment you were born that you were just like her! When you grew up, you cast your own lures, just like her!”
Numair stepped between Rikar and Daine, blocking her from his sight. “You turned the entire village against Sarra and Daine because of your own wounded pride—no one cast a spell on you, you damned fool. You trapped yourself by refusing to accept Sarra’s decision, or to let go.”
“She’s just like her! When she came of age, she cast the same spells on me, ensnaring me yet again!” the priest went on, ignoring Numair’s words. Daine felt sick at his last implication; she;d never felt comfortable under Rikar’s gaze, especially when she’d gotten older, but she’d never seen the lust he said she’d ‘spelled’ in him. Numair was obviously just as sickened, as were a number of the villagers who understood the priest.
“She might look like her sire, but she’s just like Sarra,” he’d gone on to shout, and Daine suddenly understood how to silence him—and how to close the circle on her past in Snowsdale. If her and Ma’s outcasting was because of her father’s unknown origin, and if Snowsdale had finally seen beyond that fact, then she could close the chapter on this part of her life by revealing the truth.
She laid a hand on Numair’s arm and stepped forward. He cast her a puzzled look, but she only squeezed his arm before facing the man who’d made her youth hell for his own purposes.
“Priest Rikar, you have badmouthed myself and my family for the last time. My ma did not seduce or enslave any man. She did not have an illicit affair with my da, and he was not a vagabond. He didn’t abandoned her, and she didn’t toy with him,” she spoke louder, addressing the room, as well as all the accusations she’d heard over the years. She would tell the truth and wipe the slate clean, allowing everyone to understand and accept. “There is only one reason my parents didn’t marry and it is this: My da is Weiryn, god of the hunt and the northern forests.” A charged silence filled the room, and Daine felt Numair close to her, supporting her with his presence and his strength. Because of it, she forged onward. “If you don’t believe me, I will prove it. I swear, by all the gods, that my da is Weiryn. I swear that I have heard this from his own lips, that he welcomed me into his home as his flesh and blood and acknowledged me before others. I swear this by the Mother Goddess and Mithros, by Mother Flame and Father Universe, and by all the other gods in the Divine Realm.” Her voice had grown fierce with conviction and determination as she stared into Rikar’s disbelieving, and then horrified, face. She raised her hands before her to draw the gods’ circle over her heart, speaking as she did. “This I swear, and may all the gods strike me if I have lied in this. So mote it be,” she finished, clapping her hands once, twice, thrice, in the traditional closing of a prayer or dedication to the gods.
Numair told her later what had happened. She had felt a warm glow, but everyone else had seen it, a golden cloud that surrounded her as a distant, resonant bell sounded, it’s ring filling the room as it rang three times, the final tone lingering until the cloud around her vanished.
She felt slightly dazed; never had she done such a thing, and was unprepared for its effects. From behind her, she heard Numair speak.
“Gods’ sworn oath spoken, acknowledged, accepted.”
“Spoken, acknowledged, accepted,” Cedwin and Marcus, as well as the Tortallans echoed, completing the formal witnessing of her oath.
Rikar collapsed, dazed, lost. Broken.
No one helped him.
She felt the eyes of the village on her but ignored them to turn back to Numair. He wrapped an arm around her waist, pressing her close and leaning down to murmur, “Are you alright?”
“Yes, I think so—but remind me not to do that again.”
“‘For it is the fate of the Godborn to bear injustice and suffering; only through the crucible of such are they forged into the instrument of the gods. Where Godborn walk, change follows, be it through the bringing of chaos or of order. Divine and mortal blood met and mingle, and they are of two realms, unique and alone in their nature in which ever world they walk.’” Cedwin’s reverent words carried through the silence as he quoted from The Divinity of the Immortal Realms , an ancient text that Numair had given her to read after her own journey in the Divine Realm. Daine raised her eyes to glare at him.
“Thanks ever so for pointing that out; I already know that I’m far from normal.”
She felt Numair hold her tighter, and Lena and Buri’s hands rested on her shoulder. Raoul patted her head while Rahim bowed his head in silent acknowledgement. Evin grinned and said, with a tone that rang as true as the bell that had previously, “We wouldn’t have it any other way, Horsemistress.”
A week later, when the wounded Riders, King’s Own, and their mounts were properly healed, the delegates and soldiers of Tortall returned home.
The air carried the taste of salt and brine, a reminder of the vast waters that could be seen only as a flat blue line on the horizon, and only form this vantage point. The rough stone under her hands that formed the terrace wall was warmed by the sun, the heat lingering even thought the day was dying at the hand of the coming night.
Her thoughts wandered far from where she stood; to the barely visible ocean and the wonders there, to the friends who were settled in the keep-fortress not far from here, to the city she had left only a few days ago. The sun’s setting rays struck the ring she wore, drawing her eye and a smile; there was nothing she enjoyed more than it’s weight on her finger.
Well, almost nothing, she mused as strong arms slid around her, drawing her away from the stone and against the wall of his chest. His chin rested in her hair, surrounding her with his warmth and scent even as she felt him inhale her own.
“You’ll catch cold if you stand out in the night sea air,” he murmured, his voice vibrating in his chest and making her grin. She gripped his arms, leaning back further.
“The sea air is good for you—besides, it’s summer,” she teased.
“Hmmm, true enough, but you should still be inside—in bed,” he added wickedly, leaning in to nuzzle her throat. She sighed, then groaned when he nipped gently at the cords of her neck.
He pressed kisses to her neck and shoulder for several minutes before pausing, his words brushing against her skin. “What were you thinking?”
She sought words, remembering all the thoughts that had crowded her head and sent her from their bedchamber and into the fresh air. Memories and images of Snowsdale—through a child’s eyes, and through a woman’s. The journey back to Corus, her friend’s concern over Vanel’s attack; the sight of Rikar passing out from shock. Hakkon’s expression when Numair threatened to remove his tongue. Battlefields in the mountains of her youth—fresh graves and old ones, both of which she had helped to dig. Dinner at Lori’s, her ma’s namesake resting in her lap with a thumb tucked contentedly in her mouth, Cory’s glee and tears over leaving the only home he’d known. The bathhouse. Cory’s determination to leave Galla and join the Riders, his stunned amazement at the sight of Cria, his speechless shock at the first sight of Corus, the way he’d thrown himself into the stable chores he was given while learning his letters and waiting until the next training season. The feel of the gods’ acceptance of her oath, the expressions on her once-neighbors faces when she made it; Numair tucking her carefully against him so she could rest and sleep away exhaustion in his arms, his steady support of her while she faced her ghosts—and his building rage in the face of them.
She remembered Galla as it had been, and how it seemed to her now. She thought of Tortall; of all her friends and adventures, her discoveries and growth, all the changes that she had seen and been part of and affected by. She thought of old doubts and hurts that no longer ached and bruises that had faded; of the new scars she bore, and the ones that were now cleanly healed. She thought of him; how she had only had the courage to face her ghosts because of his presence, and how his love had let her sweep those lingering shades out of the shadows of the past and into the light, where they seemed little more than pale shadows.
She turned her head, leaning it against his, and explained all her thoughts, all her musings simply and truthfully.
“That it’s good to be home.”