‘You spoke to Lerant of Eldorne.’ Qasim appeared at her side to offer Kel a piece of cheese.
‘No, thank you,’ she said politely, turning down the food. She added, ‘He talked, actually. I listened.’
‘He is a good fighter, and devoted to my lord,’ Qasim explained, eating the cheese. ‘He took an arrow for Lord Raoul last year, when we fought bandits in the Tusaine hills. He was unhappy to learn my lord took a squire.’ He offered some cheese to Jump, who gobbled it.
‘It’s all right,’ Kel said.
‘There is more to it,’ the Bazhir told her softly. ‘He applied for a warrior’s post in the army, the navy, even as a man-at-arms, though his birth entitles him to better. No one would take a son of House Eldorne after his aunt’s high treason. They feared the king’s displeasure. My lord Raoul heard of it, and brought Lerant into the Own.’
Kel felt a twinge of sympathy. She knew what it was like to be unwanted. Lerant’s jealousy was understandable, even if it wasn’t likeable. ‘Thank you,’ she told Qasim. ‘I’ll keep it in mind.’
‘He will come around,’ Qasim assured her as the Own mounted up. ‘His is a good heart, though temper makes him sharp. He regrets it later. You will see.’
Kel led Amberfire to Lord Raoul, steadying his mare as he swung into the saddle. ‘Thanks, Kel,’ he said as he accepted the reins.
Kel remounted Hoshi. Of course she understood Lerant’s feelings. There was no treason in her family, but hadn’t Lord Raoul rescued her, all the same?
CHAPTER 3 (#ulink_70df8ab0-7e07-5efd-9d0e-b8617657baac)
Smoke rose over the wooden stockade that surrounded the town of Haresfield. The wind carried scents of burned, wet wood and cooked meat. Kel knew those odours; she had smelled them often in raided Yamani and Tortallan villages.
They picketed their horses with those of the squad sent to the town earlier, in a field within view of the walls. The servingmen remained to guard them. Raoul explained to Kel that he didn’t want the Own’s tracks to blot out those left by the bandits. Anyone who entered or left the town had to skirt the broad space of trampled mud and grass before the gate, leaving the ground untouched until the raiders’ signs could be properly read. Third Company entered Haresfield on either side of the gate. Once inside, the men formed their squads. Assigned areas by Captain Flyndan, they dispersed to survey the damage.
The headman, a priestess of the Goddess, the blacksmith, and Sergeant Balim, whose squad had arrived before dawn, met Raoul in the square. They led Raoul and Flyndan through the town, showing the damage. Kel followed silently.
Inside its untouched, fifteen-foot stockade wall a third of Haresfield had burned to the ground. Other buildings stood, but fire damage made them unsafe. The blazes had weakened support beams: roofs sagged, upper floors drooped into lower ones. Smoke drifted everywhere, burning Kel’s eyes and filling her nose with the reek of ash and burned flesh. Her stomach had already tried to reject her breakfast twice.
People laboured in the ruins. Bodies were set along the streets, pieces of cloth over their faces. Kel could only glance at those who’d burned; the sight of their swollen black flesh was too much. Worse, in a way, were those who looked as if they only slept: they had suffocated. Some charred animal bodies, mostly dogs and cats, lay with their masters. Every animal of monetary value – horses, cows, goats, poultry – had been stolen.
Raoul crouched beside a dead man who clutched a long-handled war axe. He hadn’t died in a fire: five arrows peppered his corpse. Turning him slightly, Raoul showed that the arrows had gone clean through him.
‘That’s a longbow,’ Flyndan judged, fleshy face set. ‘One of those six-foot-long monsters the king wants archers to train on. Just as bad as crossbows for punching through armour.’
Raoul checked the arrows’ fletching. ‘Centaur work,’ he said. ‘They like feathers from griffins and other winged immortals. They say the arrow flies truer. Kel, feel this, so you’ll know griffin fletching the next time you see it.’
As Kel obeyed, touching a feather like ridged silk, Flyndan commented, ‘Not that they can’t do plenty of damage with human-made weapons. I’ve never seen a centaur miss what he shot at. Or she,’ he added. ‘Festering things are born archers.’
‘This isn’t centaur,’ Raoul said, rising to yank a crossbow quarrel from a shutter. He showed it to the locals, Flyndan, and Kel. ‘A human shot this. Centaurs are snobs – they hate crossbows.’
‘I don’t understand,’ the headman complained. He was an innkeeper, a short man with a barrel chest and straggly beard. ‘We’re on good terms with Greystreak and his herd – they wouldn’t attack us.’
‘They had help,’ said the priestess.
‘You don’t know for certain,’ the blacksmith snapped.
‘I know the evidence of my eyes,’ retorted the priestess, crossing her arms over her chest. ‘Your nephew Macorm and his friend Gavan had gate duty last night. There’s no trace of them, and the gate wasn’t forced. It was wide open.’
‘Macorm’s a good boy,’ argued the blacksmith. ‘Wild, a bit—’
The priestess interrupted. ‘You always defend him!’
‘I know he’s family,’ said the headman, ‘but it looks bad—’
Raoul cleared his throat. The villagers looked at him. ‘Arguing without facts is pointless,’ he said, kind but firm. ‘Flyn, have Volorin’s squad bring this Greystreak in. If it wasn’t his herd, he may know whose it is. Send a squad to the palace for aid: healers, clothes, food, and so on. And I want someone to go to the Riders.’
Flyndan opened his mouth.
‘No jealousies, Flyn,’ Raoul told him. ‘We can use one – no, two, Rider Groups here. Get the rest of the boys to help these people recover what they can.’
‘Two squads to start digging?’ Flyndan enquired.
Raoul looked down the main village street. Bodies lined it on either side, more than the twenty-three reported earlier. ‘Two’s fine,’ Raoul said, his face bleak.
As Flyndan, Balim, the smith, and the priestess went about their business, Raoul continued to view the damage with Kel. The headman left to oversee the inn’s kitchen so those who worked in the ruins might be fed.
When Raoul and Kel had seen the entire village, they returned to the gate. ‘Well, squire?’ Raoul asked. ‘What do you make of this?’ He indicated the ground at the stockade gate.
Kel looked at the churned mud. ‘I’d guess twenty-five, maybe thirty centaurs,’ she replied, not sure if she had read the signs correctly. Lindhall Reed, one of her teachers in immortal studies, had shown the pages centaur hoofmarks in plaster so the pages would recognize their tracks. ‘Twenty or so humans. The humans left their horses outside the gates – there’s marks of horseshoes and picket stakes beside the wall. Centaurs aren’t shod.’
‘Very good,’ Raoul said. ‘I wasn’t sure you’d seen that. Go on.’
‘I agree with the priestess. The gate was opened.’ She motioned to the gate. ‘It’s whole, the hinges are solid, there’s no blood or anyone dead. Even if the guards were fooled into opening up, there’d be signs of a fight. And they’d have shouted. We were told everyone was abed when the raiders got into the houses.’ Something in the mud caught her eye: a doll, half-buried in muck. She picked it up and began to clean it with a handkerchief. ‘Setting fires after they stole, that’s mischief, or settling old scores,’ she remarked. Her hands trembled with rage. The waste and cowardice – robbing their own people in the middle of the night! – had to be punished. ‘They took every animal they could sell. People are saying they cleaned out the valuables before they set their fires. And if folk here recognized the humans with the centaurs, they’re keeping quiet.’
‘They’d have to, wouldn’t they?’ Raoul asked. ‘Villages like this, cut off from most of the world, everyone’s related. A raider could be an uncle, a cousin, a brother.’
Kel nodded, cleaning the doll as people reported to Raoul and the squad bound for the palace left. This was the lowest kind of betrayal, for kinsmen to steal what little people had. She could not understand those who liked romantic songs of highwaymen and pirates. Anyone who took poor people’s life savings was not worth a song.
The centaurs were just as bad. They’d been given homes after they had sworn to heed the realm’s laws. Now they were robbing those who had taken them in.
She waited until Raoul had finished talking with his squad leaders before she asked, ‘My lord?’
Raoul looked at her and raised his eyebrows.
‘They won’t stay local, will they?’ she asked. The doll was as clean as she could get it. Kel thrust it into her belt. ‘They took all they could move. They’re on the run, looking for a place to hole up or another village to rob.’
‘Absolutely,’ her knight-master replied. ‘We’ve got serious work ahead. Don’t worry, though. With help, we’ll bring these muck suckers to bay.’
The local centaurs arrived. Kel watched the introductions, happy not to deal with these creatures, particularly the centaur chief, Greystreak. His black-and-grey hair was twined and oiled into ringlets, a style she disliked. Greystreak wore a dirty wrap-around shirt with a tangle of ribbons, beads, and chains around his neck, wrists, and pasterns, and braided in his tail. Only the belt at his waist was unornamented by anything but weapons. His human parts were those of a fair-skinned man in his fifties; his horse parts were blue roan.
Suddenly the chief broke off greeting Lord Raoul to approach Kel. He walked around her as if she were a filly for his inspection, ignoring Jump’s low growl. On his second circuit the centaur was smiling. ‘A female. A strong one, not a pitiful two-legger stick girl,’ he commented. ‘You will breed easily, perhaps even bear sons of my kind.’ His voice slid over Kel like oil.
She swallowed hard. Keeping her face Yamani-blank, she imagined Greystreak put to dray horse work in the northern mines.
The sparrows leaped from their perch in a nearby tree to dart shrieking at the centaur. Greystreak backed up, trying to shield his face. Jump advanced on him, hackles up, snarling.
‘Jump, enough,’ ordered Raoul, coming over.