‘We’ll see to personal armour tomorrow, but as you know, such things take time. Qasim will help you draw pieces to tide you over when we’re done talking,’ Raoul explained. ‘Until you get your own weapons, use company issue. You need a sword and dagger, a small axe, a shield. That’s a company shield, Qasim – I’m having a proper Goldenlake shield made, but that takes a week. Kel, which are you better at, longbow or crossbow?’
‘Long, my lord,’ Kel replied. ‘And I have a bow, sword, and dagger.’
‘Let Qasim review them,’ Raoul said. ‘He may ask you to use ours for now.’ He nodded to Qasim. ‘Standard field kit. Now, long weapons …’ He gazed at Kel thoughtfully. ‘Lances are good for tournaments, giants, and ogres, but they’re unwieldy in a scramble. Most of us carry spears—’
‘A third use halberds,’ Flyndan added.
‘I know you can use a spear,’ Raoul continued, thinking aloud. ‘Have you tried a halberd?’
Kel hesitated. Lord Wyldon had never let her use her favourite weapon, which was similar to a halberd. I won’t know if I don’t ask, she thought. ‘One moment, my lord?’ she asked. At his nod she returned to her room.
‘She’s polite enough,’ Kel heard Flyndan say.
‘What did you expect?’ Raoul was amused. ‘Wyldon trained her. He’s serious about manners.’
Kel’s wooden practice glaive and a standard glaive hung on a rack behind the connecting door. She took the edged weapon down. The five-foot-long staff was teak, the base shod in iron. The blade was eighteen inches long at the tip and broadly curved. The blue ripples under the polished surface marked it as the best steel money could buy. It was a gift from her mother and Kel’s prize.
‘I can use this, my lord,’ she said as she returned to the next room. The three men were talking. When they stopped to look at her, Flyndan’s jaw dropped. Qasim smiled.
Raoul walked over to her, eyes on the weapon. ‘May I?’ he asked, holding out his hands. Kel gave him the glaive and stood back. He spun it in a circle, as he might a staff. ‘Nice weight,’ he commented. ‘Hey, Flyn, look here.’ He extended his arm and balanced the glaive on one finger. It remained steadily horizontal. He picked up a quill and set the end on the blade’s edge. The steel cut it in half without Lord Raoul pressing the feather down.
Flyndan whistled. ‘What’s this?’
‘It’s a glaive, sir,’ Kel replied. ‘The Yamanis call them naginata. Noblewomen fight with these. Since we were at court, we learned, too.’
‘Can you use it?’ Flyndan demanded. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but that looks awkward for a—’ Flyndan swallowed a word and finished with ‘youngster’.
Raoul handed the glaive to Kel and pushed back some chairs to make room. Kel began the cuts, turns, and swings of a pattern dance. She picked up the pace, until her blade was a silver blur shadowed by the longer dark blur of the staff. She finished with a rapid spin and halt, the blade stopping just short of a chair.
‘Captain Whiteford.’ She offered him the weapon. Flyndan took it in one hand and nearly dropped it; he’d been unprepared for the weight.
‘So you’ve got a long weapon,’ Raoul said calmly, resting his behind on his desk. ‘Chain mail?’
‘I will find something to fit,’ Qasim promised as Kel shook her head.
Flyndan, expressionless, returned the glaive to Kel. Qasim dusted his hands – the birds had eaten every cherry – and jerked his head towards the door. Kel bowed to Raoul and followed Qasim, her animals in their wake. She stopped to put her glaive on the rack.
‘I chose a tent and bedroll for you already,’ Qasim remarked. He pointed to a tightly wrapped bundle on Kel’s clothespress. ‘The bedroll is inside the tent. So too are the stakes and rope you will need. May I see your weapons? I need also to look at your travel gear.’
Qasim checked everything, eyes sharp as he tested edges and cleanliness. He then inspected her travel packs. ‘This is all very good,’ he said. ‘I am envious.’
Kel wasn’t sure if she ought to tell this man, however kindly disposed he was, about her anonymous benefactor. That person had sent her gifts during her page years, from exercise balls to help her strengthen her grip, to weapons. She decided to be quiet for now. There was a Yamani saying: ‘You need never unsay anything that you did not say in the first place.’
They went to the stables, then to the armoury that served the King’s Own. All of the equipment she chose passed Qasim’s painstaking inspection. He loaded her with things she did not have – tack for Hoshi, a chain mail shirt, a padded round helm, even a square leather carrier that fastened onto the back of her saddle. The men of the Own often travelled with hawks and dogs in case they had to hunt or track. Like the company’s terriers, Jump would ride in style.
Putting her gear away, Kel realized that an important moment in her life had come and gone as she chose a riding saddle and inspected shields. For the first time a warrior had thoroughly tested her knowledge of equipment, and she had passed. Qasim had rejected none of her choices. It was all the more startling to Kel because he’d done it in such a matter-of-fact, commonplace way.
Today she’d dealt with two men who took her on her own terms. Thank you, Mithros, for this gift, she thought to the god of war and law. Then she remembered that she was at her window, grinning foolishly. Shaking her head at her own folly, she got back to work.
It was nearly suppertime when Kel finished putting everything away. She had one more thing to do concerning Peachblossom. She had thought to go to Daine – the Wildmage was home, Kel knew – but she chose to talk to the gelding on her own first. She didn’t know if this was because she respected Peachblossom so much that she thought he might listen, or because she resented the idea that he would listen to Daine and not his rider. Whatever the reason, she prayed this would work. Like other palace animals, Peachblossom had grown more intelligent in human terms over the years. By this point, surely, Kel didn’t need Daine to translate.
The stable was deserted. No one was there to snicker at her. ‘Um, Peachblossom? Could I have a word?’ she asked the gelding. She hadn’t brought any treats. This was too important for bribes.
He walked to the front of the stall and, in a rare gesture of affection, thrust his long brown muzzle against Kel’s chest. He snorted at the smell of old iron left by chain mail, but didn’t move away.
Kel stroked him. ‘We’re going to be with plenty of other horses,’ she told him. ‘Hoshi’s just the start.’
Peachblossom threw up his head to eye Hoshi. The mare, quietly eating hay next door, switched her tail as if to say, Go away, boy.
‘Nobody will be able to work if you’re forever biting them,’ Kel said. ‘We could get in trouble if you start fights. They might make me leave you behind.’
Peachblossom fixed her squarely with one eye.
‘I don’t know if they will,’ she amended, scrupulously honest. ‘But it seems likely. We’ll always be together when I’m a knight – surely you know that. But consider getting along here? You don’t have to be friendly. Just don’t make trouble.’
The thought of having to leave him made her eyes sting. She loved every scarred, irritable inch of Peachblossom. She knew she would like Hoshi: she was a gift from Lord Raoul. She also seemed like a horse who could view disaster with a calm eye. But Peachblossom was the friend of Kel’s heart, her staunch ally. She hugged him fiercely around the neck.
‘Think about it,’ she told him, and left him to it.
Kel, Lalasa, Jump, and the sparrows were asleep in Kel’s old rooms when thunder broke through Kel’s dreams. Sitting up in bed, she realized what she heard was not thunder, but someone pounding on her door.
She leaped to answer it without pulling on her robe. Qasim almost rapped her nose when she yanked the door open. ‘We are called away tonight,’ he said. ‘When you are dressed, go to the stable and ready your mounts. I will pack the gear you will need.’
‘But my lord’s armour, his gear and horses – that’s my job,’ she protested.
‘Another time,’ Qasim ordered. Kel was about to close the door when he stopped her. ‘It will be bad,’ he said. ‘Haresfield village in the Royal Forest was attacked by robbers. The messengers say it is a bloody mess. Be ready.’
Is anyone ever ready for such things? Kel wondered as he left. She took a breath and concentrated on what had to be done. Lalasa was placing a basin full of water and a towel on the desk. As Kel washed her face, cleaned her teeth, and combed her hair, Lalasa put out her clothes, including a fresh breast band and loincloth, and one of the cloth pads Kel wore during her monthly bleeding. It had begun the day before.
‘I’ll need more pads,’ Kel said, fastening her breast band and hitching her shoulders until it fit properly. ‘And three days’ worth of clothes – how much do I have here?’
‘More than that,’ Lalasa said. Kel glanced at her. The maid smiled sheepishly. ‘I just wanted to give everything a last look-over,’ she explained. She briskly folded and stacked shirts, breeches, tunics, stockings, underclothes, and, in one of the shirts, more cloth pads.
‘You’d think I rip my seams every day,’ Kel grumbled, pulling on her stockings. By the time she straightened her tunic, Lalasa had put her clothes in a wicker basket.
Kel hugged the girl, who was as much friend as maid, then grabbed the basket and gave her key to Lalasa. ‘Tell Neal and the others I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye,’ she said, and raced down the hall with Jump and the sparrows.
In the stable Kel and over a hundred men saddled riding horses and put lead reins on their remounts. Qasim had left a pack with Kel’s name on it for her spare clothes; she filled it from her basket and gave the pack to the supply officer when he collected them.
Qasim had put a burnoose, weapons, mail, helmet, and shield with her tack. Kel popped out of her tunic, slid into the mail shirt, then pulled the tunic over it. The men of the Own wore burnooses as cloaks. Kel fastened hers at the neck, hoping Qasim would show her how to shape a hood from it and fix it to her head when there was time.
She fastened her shield and weapons to her saddle, then donned her helmet. She was ready. Looping Hoshi’s reins around one hand and Peachblossom’s around the other, Kel walked out of the stable with her mounts and Jump. The sparrows had vanished into Jump’s carrier on Hoshi’s back.
Kel tethered her horses on the edge of the courtyard where the company assembled. The torches, blown by the wind, gave the scene a dreamlike feel as the faces of the men were first brightly lit, then shadowed. The night itself was a cool one, the wind smelling of water and the first hay cutting of the summer.
Kel watched the men unnoticed. Some were thirty or older, but most were young, single men in their twenties – married men were not allowed to join the King’s Own. A third were Bazhir. Of all the realm’s forces the King’s Own had done the best at enlisting the once-scorned Bazhir. That was Lord Raoul’s doing: he had taken the Own to live among the Bazhir for two seasons and recruited new men from their sons.
‘So who’s this youngster?’ someone asked. Hoshi’s bulk shielded Kel from the men’s view. ‘We’ve got Lerant here for standard-bearer.’