‘A squire,’ sneered a young man’s voice.
The one who’d first spoken exclaimed, ‘He’s never wanted a squire—’
Kel stroked Peachblossom’s nose. Eavesdropping had become a vice for her. She strained to hear a whispered remark, but didn’t catch what was said. Then:
‘The Girl?’ someone demanded.
‘I don’t care if she’s the Wave Walker,’ someone drawled. ‘She’s green as grass.’
‘She better not foul us up in the field,’ another voice proclaimed.
‘Don’t you saddle rats have better things to do?’ a gruff voice demanded. ‘Let’s have an inspection. Mithros witness, if I find one strap undone, heads will roll.’
‘But, Sergeant Osbern, sir, I like my head,’ someone muttered.
‘Very well, Gildes of Veldine. Let’s inspect you first and put you out of your misery,’ the decisive voice said.
Now that they were no longer talking about her, Kel emerged from between the horses. Gildes must be the drooping fellow who led his mounts to a blond, barrel-chested man. The others were double-checking their things.
‘Did you eat?’ someone asked Kel. A young man about four inches taller than she approached her. He gave Kel a warm turnover. ‘Just rolled out of bed and came charging on down, I bet. You’ll learn. Eat.’
Kel bit and discovered sausage and cheese inside the turnover. ‘It’s good!’ she mumbled, her mouth full.
The stranger grinned cheerfully at her. In his early twenties, he was broad-shouldered, big-handed, and very handsome. He wore his dark hair cut just below his ears. His mouth was long and made for smiling. He wore the uniform of the Own: loose dark trousers, chain mail shirt, blue tunic with silver trim, and a white burnoose. The crimson band around his biceps showed a dark circle with a black dot at its centre: a sergeant’s badge.
‘I see you’ve still got your overgrown horse,’ he remarked with a nod towards Peachblossom. ‘I was new to the King’s Own that day we saw you tilting. Everybody but me bet you’d come straight off his back when he reared. I won a meal at The Jugged Hare because I bet you’d stay on.’ He bowed to Kel as she wiped her fingers on the handkerchief she kept tucked in her boot top. ‘Domitan of Masbolle at your service, Squire Keladry. Your page-sponsor was a certain mad cousin of mine.’
She squinted to get a better look at him. His eyes – impossible to tell their colour at the moment – were framed by wide, arched brows and set over a long nose slightly wide at the tip. It was Neal’s nose, on someone else’s face. Kel smiled. ‘You’re related to Neal?’
‘Sadly, yes. I call him Meathead. Have you ever met anyone so stubborn?’ Domitan tucked his big hands into his breeches pockets with a grin.
‘He can be difficult, um … Sergeant?’
He shook his head. ‘Technically you’re not in the Own. Besides, he’s written me so much about you I feel like I know you. Call me Dom.’ He offered his hand.
‘Kel,’ she said, taking it. He gave her a firm squeeze, reassuring, not trying her strength as so many young men did, and let go. She felt breathless and tingly.
‘You sure grew into this bruiser,’ Dom remarked. When he offered a hand for Peachblossom to sniff, Kel yanked him back just as the gelding struck. ‘Oh, I see,’ Dom remarked, unruffled. ‘A testy pony.’
Kel giggled, then saw that Lord Raoul, Captain Flyndan, and two men, farmers by their clothes, had emerged from the palace. Stablehands brought horses and remounts forward.
‘We’re ready to do business,’ Dom remarked. ‘Welcome to the Own, Kel.’ He swung himself onto his saddled mount, a dappled grey gelding.
Lord Raoul rode over. ‘All set to give Hoshi a try?’ he asked. Kel nodded. ‘Mount up. Normally our remounts go in a string at the rear – the servingmen lead them with the supply train. We’ll make an exception for Peachblossom. You ride a neck length back on my left, and keep him with you. Behave,’ he told Peachblossom, speaking directly to the horse. ‘Or I’ll muzzle you like a dog.’
Peachblossom shook his head vigorously. Kel hoped that was restlessness, not disagreement. With no time for another word with him, she gave a silent prayer to any listening gods for his good behaviour and swung into the saddle. Hoshi stood patiently as she settled in.
Kel twisted to look into the carrier behind her saddle. ‘You have to move,’ she told the drowsy sparrows huddled there. ‘Otherwise Jump will squash you.’
The birds hopped out. Once the carrier was empty, Kel nodded to Jump: he sprang neatly into the leather box. Hoshi flicked two ears back, then swung them forward again. Not even Jump could shake the mare’s calm.
‘Well, I’m impressed,’ drawled Raoul, who had watched. ‘Come along, Squire Keladry. Time to get your feet wet.’
Following him to the front of the mounted force, Kel took note of the dogs. Thin, fine-boned greyhounds sat on the ground beside three riders. Four other men rode with terriers in carriers like Jump’s. Six wolfhounds stood beside Captain Flyndan, tails wagging. There was no sign of Third Company’s hunting birds – probably they were in carriers, asleep.
Lord Raoul faced his men. ‘Doubtless you know as much as I do,’ he said, his calm, steady voice carrying over the fidgets of horses and the creak of leather. The men fell silent the moment he began to speak. ‘Haresfield in the Royal Forest was attacked by a band of centaurs and humans. We’ve got reports of twenty-three dead. Balim’s squad is there now. Chances are the raiders cleared the district, but they could be stupid enough to stay around. Keep your eyes open.’
He wheeled to face the gates, raised a kid-gloved hand, and brought it down, nudging his big bay mare into a trot. A brunette young man with a snub nose rode on his right, carrying the flag that announced they were Third Company of the King’s Own. Captain Flyndan rode on the standard-bearer’s right. Obeying her instructions, Kel followed Lord Raoul on his left. Behind her she heard the thunder of hooves as the riders took places in a long double column.
Kel felt a thrill of pride. I could be a general, leading an army to war, she thought, and smiled. She had no particular interest in armies, but it was fun to imagine herself a hero from a ballad at the head of a mighty legion.
Except that ballads never mentioned horses like Peachblossom, or one-eared, ugly dogs like the one who sat behind her. Nor did they mention sparrows perched in a neat row on a horse’s mane. Used to these passengers, Peachblossom ignored them. Crown had claimed her place on Kel’s shoulder.
Once they rode through the Least Gate and across a bridge into the greater world, Kel looked back. The company made an impressive display; two columns of fifty men, each in the white, blue, and silver of full members of the Own, followed by ten men in blue and white. These were the servingmen, who led the remounts and supply train. In the predawn light she could see that five of the Own rode with hunting birds on their shoulders.
‘You mind those hawks,’ she told Crown. ‘You’re safe while they’re hooded or caged, but keep out of their sight when they’re hunting. At least we’ll eat well enough.’
‘We do try to eat,’ Raoul called back to her. ‘I go all faint if I don’t get fed regularly. Only think of the disgrace to the King’s Own if I fell from the saddle.’
‘But there was that time in Fanwood,’ a voice behind them said.
‘That wedding in Tameran,’ added the blond Sergeant Osbern, riding a horse-length behind Kel.
‘Don’t forget when what’s-his-name, with the army, retired,’ yelled a third.
‘Silence, insubordinate curs!’ cried Raoul. ‘Do not sully my new squire’s ears with your profane tales!’
‘Even if they’re true?’ That was Dom. It seemed Neal wasn’t the only family member versed in irony.
Suddenly Kel’s view of the next four years changed. She had expected hard work mixed with dread for the Ordeal of Knighthood at the end of it. Never had she guessed that other Tortallan warriors might not be as stiff and formal as Lord Wyldon. Never had she thought that she might have fun.
Thank you, Goddess, she thought. Thank you, Mithros. I’m going to learn, and enjoy myself while I do!
They followed the Conté Road southwest into the forest as the sun rose. About the time Kel used to eat breakfast, Raoul held up his arm. Everyone slowed to a walk, Kel a beat behind the others. She had to learn the hand signals. Maybe Qasim would teach her.
Third Company halted beside a river to rest and water the horses – Haresfield lay farther still inside the forest. Kel dismounted, Hoshi’s and Peachblossom’s reins in her hands. When Raoul climbed down from the saddle, Kel whisked his mare Amberfire’s reins from his grip and led the animals to the river. Caring for a knight-master’s horses was a normal part of a squire’s duties. She glanced back: Raoul grinned and raised his hands in surrender.
Once all three horses had drunk, Kel turned them. Her path to Raoul was blocked by the snub-nosed standard-bearer. He was an inch taller than Kel, a broad-shouldered eighteen-year-old with level brown eyes and a firm chin. He wore his blond-brown hair cropped short at the sides; his fringe flopped over his forehead.
‘My lord only took you because he felt sorry for you,’ he informed Kel icily. ‘I did his chores before you came. I was good at it.’
Kel returned his look with Yamani calm, her emotions hidden. This young man’s words stung a little. She knew that Raoul wanted her Yamani experience on the Great Progress. She also knew many would see it as the standard-bearer did. ‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ she replied. ‘If you’ll excuse me?’ She took a firmer grip on Peachblossom’s reins. The gelding watched the young man with too much interest for her comfort.
The standard-bearer gripped her arm. ‘Watch your step, squire,’ he informed her. ‘Just because Wyldon didn’t have the brass to get rid of you doesn’t mean we won’t.’
Kel flexed her bicep. He stared at her as muscle swelled under his fingers, forcing them open. With a quick jerk Kel freed herself. ‘Excuse me,’ she repeated, and walked off with her charges, keeping Peachblossom away from the standard-bearer.
Of course he’s resentful, she thought as she joined the column. I’ve taken his place with my lord – or what he sees as his place. There’s nothing I can do about that.