Kel looked down. A small girl stared up at her with accusing brown eyes. She was streaked with mud and soot; there were charred places on her skirt, but there was nothing afraid or weary in those eyes.
‘I looked and looked and looked. I thought Gavan stole it because he knew I would cry. She’s my favourite.’
Kel had forgotten the doll she had cleaned and thrust into her belt. Now she gave it to its owner, who informed Kel that ‘Mama needs help lifting.’
‘Take me to your mother, then,’ Kel said.
The girl’s home was a shambles. Soot streaked the walls above the windows. Men and boys were on the roof, tearing off burned thatch as they searched for hidden fires. A figure the size of an infant lay in front of the house, covered with a cloth square.
‘That’s my brother,’ the girl said, her face stony. ‘We were running across the street. The house was on fire, and men were shooting arrows, and one hit him. He died.’
She led Kel into the house. A woman whose eyes were red and puffy from weeping struggled to right an overturned table. A toddler clutched her skirt. Kel got to work with the table while her guide took charge of the toddler. The young mother was happy for the assistance, and asked nothing of Kel past her name.
They had set the room in order and put the beds out to air when Kel heard someone yell for her. She apologized to the family and ran out, to find Lerant in the street.
‘What have you been doing, rolling in muck?’ he demanded scornfully, looking down his short nose at her. ‘Well, never mind. The Rider Groups are here, and the centaurs, the ones who are going to help search. They’re in a tent outside the main gate. My lord wants you to wait on them. The wine service is in the bags with the blue rawhide ties, with the packhorses. There’s two small kegs of wine in general supplies.’ He trotted away, not giving Kel time to reply.
She drew a bucket of water from a nearby well and poured it over her head to rinse off most of the dirt. Then she went to find the supplies outside the stockade.
The packs lay on the ground. Raoul’s personal ones had his crest pressed into the leather. Those with blue rawhide ties lay beside them. She had gone through one and was opening the second when a man shouted, ‘Hey! You! What are you after, grubbing in the captain’s things? Get out of there!’
A servingman ran over to grab Kel’s arm. ‘You think you can steal whatever you like, is that it? Well—’
‘Hold it, Noack,’ someone interrupted. It was the burly Sergeant Osbern. ‘What’s this noise? They can hear you at the council tent.’
‘He was in Captain Flyndan’s bags, and I’m not to squawk?’ the man Noack demanded.
‘Squire Keladry?’ Osbern enquired. Kel nodded.
‘Squire?’ cried the testy Noack. ‘Squire or no—’
Osbern raised his eyebrows. Noack went silent and let go of Kel.
‘I was told my lord’s wine service was here, and that I should bring it and the wine to the council tent,’ Kel said evenly. ‘I didn’t know those were Captain Flyndan’s bags.’
‘Who told you?’ the sergeant enquired.
Obviously Lerant was having fun at her expense, but she would keep that to herself. ‘One of the men, Sergeant,’ she replied. ‘I don’t know the names yet.’
Osbern pursed his lips. ‘Too bad, because I would have a thing or two to say to that man,’ he told Kel, his voice dry. ‘It isn’t just the captain’s bags, Squire Keladry. My lord doesn’t drink spirits, and he doesn’t serve them. He says he had a problem as a young man, so he doesn’t care to have liquor about. Captain Flyndan likes a glass or two. He serves it in his tent, but only when my lord isn’t there. A water service will do today.’
Kel nodded and found the pitcher, tray, and cups in Raoul’s general supplies. The company mages had declared the town’s wells to be clean, with no sickness in them. Kel used the well nearest the gate to fill her cups and pitcher, then carefully took the whole into the council tent.
Its sides were raised to accommodate five centaurs, who stood with the humans around a large table on which maps had been placed. These were younger than Greystreak, and looked to be in their twenties and thirties, though with centaurs it was hard to tell. Their youth lasted for two centuries; like other immortals, they never aged past mature adulthood. Unless an immortal was killed by accident or in a fight, she or he might live forever.
There were four human newcomers in plain white shirts, brown tunics and trousers, and riding boots. They wore the emblem of the Queen’s Riders, a crimson horse rearing on a bronze-coloured field, circled by a ring. One Rider wore a crimson ring around his badge, the sign of a Rider Group commander. Two wore a crimson ring with a thin black stripe in the middle: they were second in command. The Riders had a looser command structure and did not follow traditional military rankings.
The fourth Rider was a woman with golden brown skin and straight black hair. She was five inches shorter than Kel, with a short nose, firm mouth, and level black eyes. She was stocky and muscular. Her hair, braided tightly back from her face, framed high cheekbones and a square chin. The ring around her Rider insignia was gold.
Kel blinked, surprised. As she set cups before the guests, she eyed the Commander of the Queen’s Riders. Buriram Tourakom – Buri, as she was known – was as famed as Lord Raoul or the Lioness. She’d been made full commander during the Immortals War, when Queen Thayet, the previous commander, had seen she was too busy as queen to serve the force she had created. Buri had been Thayet’s guard before she was queen; she had been co-commander since the Riders’ creation, and had done most of the everyday work in the company. She was a ferocious fighter, armed or unarmed. No one tangled with her, given a choice. When Kel placed a cup before her, Buri murmured her thanks.
Once everyone was served, Kel stood at ease behind Raoul and listened. These centaurs, three females and two males, were very different from Greystreak. They were eager for the hunt and the fight to come.
The meeting ended late. Kel fought yawns as she followed Raoul to the inn where he, Buri, and Flyndan had been given rooms. While the inn was largely intact, the scent of smoke filled it from cellar to garret. Kel didn’t care; neither did the others, she suspected. The men and Buri went to their rooms immediately. As Raoul’s squire Kel opened her bedroll in front of his door. The sparrows protested this odd way to sleep, but found places around Jump. Kel was pulling off her boots when someone down the hall whispered, ‘Pst!’
She looked up, squinting. The wall lamp was nearly out of oil; its flame barely cast any light.
Kel unsheathed her sword and walked towards the noise, stockinged feet silent on the wooden boards. If she had to go out of sight of Raoul’s door, she would wake him. This could be an attempt to draw her off, an attempt on his life.
The attempt was only Lerant, standing at the top of the stairs. ‘What do you want?’ Kel demanded, in no mood to be polite. She wanted to sleep.
He glared at her. Kel turned to go back to her bed. ‘No, wait!’ he whispered.
She turned back as she considered smacking him with the flat of her sword to teach him respect. Such thoughts only told her how bone-tired she was. Normally the idea would never occur to her.
‘Why didn’t you tell?’ Lerant kept his voice low.
‘Tell what?’ she asked, her own voice barely audible.
‘Come on. I heard Osbern set you straight. You didn’t tell him who steered you to the packs, or he’d’ve had me up before Flyn.’
‘You couldn’t ask in the morning?’ she demanded, cross.
‘I want to know now!’
Kel sighed. ‘I don’t tell on people,’ she said. ‘Good night.’ She walked back down the hall, sheathed her sword, and crawled into bed.
CHAPTER 4 (#ulink_911ea441-403b-5d22-ba76-c7c71b4f06a5)
If the Haresfield renegades were new to forest robbery, the centaurs and other humans with the band were not. Lord Wyldon had taught the pages much about tracking, but the next two weeks saw Kel’s education expand ferociously. Whenever the robbers could mask their trail by walking in streams and over rocks, they did. It reached the point where the hunters moaned at a glimpse of water or a patch of stone. The robbers often split into five or six groups to confuse their trackers.
The centaurs used magic to hide their passage and their appearance in scrying crystals. They buried or hid loot so it wouldn’t slow them down. The Riders found two caches; Dom’s squad found a third. Everyone knew more was hidden away, because the bandits attacked every village they could, no matter how slim the pickings. In one village they sold loot from other raids, taking it back with everything else of value when they struck that night.
Clean clothes became a delirium dream. Kel washed hers cold and wore them wet, thanking the gods she didn’t get sick easily. She learned why Raoul had said she would do few of the things that squires normally did for knights. She barely had the strength to care for their mounts and weapons. Waiting on him as he ate and putting out his clothes for the morning would be ridiculous.
On the ninth day they ran out of the lotion that repelled insects. Lord Raoul growled under his breath and sent a party to the palace for supplies, for Riders and centaurs as well as Third Company.
By and large Kel thought the centaurs who hunted with them were decent people. They worked hard and never complained.
‘Rogues make us look bad,’ Iriseyes, their female leader, told Dom, Qasim, and Kel one night as they gnawed stale flatbread. ‘Enough two-leggers call us animals as is, without this crowd making it worse. We told Greystreak he ought to cull Maresgift, Jealousani, Edkedy, and their crowd, but he wouldn’t do it. I suppose it’s hard to cull your own brother.’
‘Cull?’ Dom asked.
‘Kill ’em,’ Iriseyes said. ‘Herdmasters like Greystreak can do it. You don’t want bad blood in the herd, particularly not in the slaves. It ruins the slaves, so you have to get rid of them, too. That’s probably what Greystreak’s doing now, culling the slaves that bred with that crowd.’