Kel got up abruptly and walked away. Killing horses because they’d been mounted by wicked centaurs was obscene, she thought, hands shaking as she washed her dishes. It was as obscene as babies’ being shot as their families ran from danger.
That was the eleventh night. The next morning the party with fresh supplies found them. Clean garments and insect repellant gave everyone, including Kel, a more cheerful outlook. She could even talk to the centaurs, though she had to banish the word ‘cull’ from her mind when she did.
On their fifteenth night they got a piece of luck: Osbern’s squad picked up Macorm, a Haresfield renegade. The young man was filthy and afraid. A bite on his arm was infected. He was bound hand and foot, wounded arm or no. Osbern told Raoul it was to protect Macorm as much as hold him: Osbern’s men had not liked what they saw in Haresfield. They knew Macorm had been one of the two who had opened the gate.
‘It wasn’t what I imagined, my lord,’ the prisoner told Raoul. ‘There was no feasting or pretty girls or wine. Just take and run, and run. Gavan likes it, but he likes killing, too.’ A tear ran down his face, drawing a clean track in the dirt. ‘All I did was ask to go home. I swore I’d never tell, but they didn’t believe me. They said they’d cull me at sunset for the Mares with Bloody Teeth—’
‘Our goddesses of vengeance,’ explained Iriseyes. She and two other centaurs were listening to Macorm’s tale.
‘They said they’d eat my heart. I believed them. They tied me up, but I got away.’ More tears followed the first.
‘We’ll just shackle you, then,’ Raoul said. ‘To keep you from repeating the experiment.’
‘I know where they’re bound next,’ Macorm told him, desperate. ‘They thought I ran straight off, but I went up a tree. They never thought I’d stay close, let alone right on top of them, and I hid my scent with pine sap. I heard them talking after the searchers went out. For the king’s mercy I’ll tell you what they said.’
‘If we catch them, we’ll speak to the king,’ Raoul said after a moment’s thought. ‘If you lie – if it’s a trap—’
‘Gods, no!’ Macorm began to weep in earnest.
Raoul and Flyndan traded looks. Flyn raised his brows; Lord Raoul nodded. ‘Time to call the Riders in,’ Flyn said with a thin smile. ‘Buri would never forgive us for leaving her out of the party.’
‘I’d never forgive myself if she were left out,’ Raoul told his second. ‘Kel, get Noack up here with his tools,’ Raoul told her. ‘I want shackles on this lad. If you’re good, we’ll feed you,’ he told Macorm. To Kel he added, ‘We’ll need Emmet of Fenrigh.’ He’d named one of the men with a healing Gift. ‘He’s out of—’
‘Aiden’s squad,’ Kel said.
Raoul grinned. ‘You learn fast. Under thankless conditions, I might add. Off you go.’
She went to find the men he’d requested.
The Rider Group under Commander Buri came just after sunset; the second Group arrived soon after. Maps were produced, laid flat, and anchored by stones and cups of steaming tea. Kel was kept busy pouring tea and bringing food for the hungry Rider leaders. She even served Macorm, chained to the tent pole for this conversation. Raoul had asked her to do it, though what she wanted to do was take him to Haresfield and rub his nose in the streets filled with the dead, like a bad puppy. Two things stopped her: she was on duty, which meant keeping her feelings to herself, and she knew that Haresfield had surely finished burying the dead by now.
From what she had overheard, a village called Owlshollow was to be the next target. A human bandit had heard the son of that village’s biggest fur merchant, apprenticed to a tanner in another town, talking drunkenly. The son complained that the old man wouldn’t die and let his son inherit while he was young enough to enjoy it. He was too miserly to buy a horse for his heir to ride. He mistrusted fast-talking Corus goldsmiths and their banks, and hoarded the coin he took from each year’s fur harvest. Probably his cronies did the same: they all lived as meanly as they could, and whined about the foolish young.
That was enough for Maresgift’s bandits. They would descend on Owlshollow and clean it out. If necessary, they would torture the fur merchants into revealing where they’d hidden their gold.
Macorm was taken away under guard after he finished. Once he was out of earshot, the blond, blue-eyed Evin Larse, in command of the second Rider Group, produced a crystal from his sleeve. It glowed a bright, steady gold. ‘It would have turned black if he’d lied outright, grey if he’d lied even a bit.’
‘You’re sure it works?’ Flyn asked. ‘I don’t trust bought magic. I like to see it worked right in front of me.’
‘It works,’ said Larse. ‘It ought to. I paid enough.’
‘We did reimburse you,’ Buri pointed out.
‘Half,’ retorted Evin. ‘At the rate I use it for the Riders, they ought to pay me double.’
‘He only bought it to find out if the ladies he courts have husbands,’ Buri’s second in command put in.
There was a chuckle from the people in the circle around the maps. The air emptied of the tension that had filled it while Macorm was still present.
‘Here’s their last known position.’ Buri marked the place on the map with a blunt brown finger. ‘If they’re bound for Owlshollow, travelling at …’
The hunters broke into a flurry of talk, figuring the bandits’ speed based on what was known. Suddenly the mud-streaked, hollow-eyed, grim bloodhounds had become a lively group of humans and immortals again. The end of their chase was in view.
They calculated the robbers’ present location, leaving a margin for error. Raoul sent Kel for a large leather tube packed with his things. When she brought it, he pulled off the cap on one end and slid out a heavy roll of sheets. He looked through them, checking marks on the corners until he found the one he sought, then drew out the sheet and opened it on their worktable. It showed part of the Royal Forest, the district that contained Owlshollow.
Reaching into his shirt, Raoul produced a gold key on a chain and pulled it over his head. Using the key, he drew a circle around the dot labelled Owlshollow. It included the bandits’ last known location. When he closed the circle, the map vanished. They were looking down at real terrain, forested hills, streams and rivers, marshes. Owlshollow appeared as a small town at the junction of two roads and a river. It was situated on rocky bluffs, protected on two sides from raiders who came by water.
‘Show-off,’ murmured Buri. ‘Bought magic still isn’t as good as what you do yourself.’
‘As if you did any,’ retorted Raoul.
Iriseyes ran her fingertip from the bandits’ last known camp, where Macorm had left them, to Owlshollow. ‘Well, well,’ the centaur said, showing teeth in a predator’s grin. ‘Look at this.’
‘The river blocks them outside the town,’ said Flyn.
‘Marsh blocks the southern escapes,’ Buri said, her eyes glittering. ‘The stone ridge boxes them in on the north.’
‘I know this town,’ Volorin said. He wore his dark hair long and braided, with ivory beads carved like skulls at the ends of the braids. ‘No one can get through the marsh, and that ridge is a hard climb, not easy for centaurs. If we spread out in an arc …’ He sketched the arc on the map with his finger.
‘We’ll have them,’ said Evin Larse.
‘We split up,’ said Raoul. ‘Our hunter force takes position at Owlshollow, where they’ll seal off the river escape routes. The rest of us will form a crescent of hounds, and drive our playmates to the hunters.’ He looked around at the others; all were nodding.
The Rider Groups, the centaurs, and half of Third Company were given places along the crescent. Raoul would command the fifty men of the Own in the field. Flyndan and the rest of Third Company would make a fast ride at dawn, slipping far around the bandits to reach Owlshollow. The robbers would never realize the trap was set until it closed.
As everyone prepared to go, Raoul said, ‘Kel, you’ll report to Captain Flyndan and his sergeants.’
Kel and Flyn stared at him. Flyn protested, ‘She’s your squire, my lord—’
Raoul shook his head. ‘I want her with you.’
One of the first lessons pages learned was never to question a knight-master’s command. One pleading look was all Kel allowed herself before she began to clean off the table. By the time she was done, everyone had gone to their beds. She went in search of hers.
Raoul crouched between his tent and Kel’s, giving Jump a thorough scratch. ‘Walk with me,’ he told her, rising to his feet. They strolled across the large clearing that held their camp.
Raoul finally stopped to lean against a massive oak. ‘You want to know why I’m sending you with Flyn.’
‘Sir, I’m to obey without question,’ Kel pointed out, though she did want to know.
‘That’s fine if you’re to be a lone knight – you have to figure out things yourself,’ he said quietly. ‘But if you get extra duties someday – like command – you should know why you’re asked to do some things, particularly those that aren’t part of regular training.
‘Putting you with Flyn at Owlshollow accomplishes two goals,’ he explained. ‘You’ll deal with his not liking you. He’ll probably give you scut work. You need to show you’ll do your part no matter what. Plenty of nobles won’t take orders from a commoner, and they baulk when there’s no potential for glory. You need to show that you’ll do what’s needed, not just for me, but for others. And I’ll see how Flyn manages you, if you change his thinking at all. I know you want to be among the hounds, but trust me, this is important.’
Kel nodded. She understood his reasoning, though she hated the assignment. And she still couldn’t argue, because proper squires didn’t.
Raoul clasped her shoulder lightly and let go. ‘There will be other chases,’ he said. ‘Now get some sleep.’
Owlshollow was larger than Haresfield, and better fortified, with a double stockade wall to shield it. Late that first morning within the walls Flyn called a meeting with the men of the Own and the town’s officials. The squads would wear farmers’ clothes over their mail and work in the fields, so anyone who scouted would think all was normal. Flyn gave each squad a position, then looked at the townsmen. ‘Did we forget anything?’ he asked. ‘Any side trail, any hole that might let a few escape?’