At Midsummer, Lord Leamount's combined forces had fallen on the Throne City and driven Lord Kelcrag out. Every move Kelcrag had made since then had been one of retreat. His retreat had been hard fought, and each acre of ground had been bitterly contested, but it had been an inexorable series of losses.
But now autumn was half over; he had made a break-and-run, and at this point everyone in Leamount's armies knew why. He was choosing to make a last stand on ground
Both sides knew this next battle would
to bring the war to a conclusion. In winter it would be impossible to continue any kind of real fightâthe best outcome would be stalemate as troops of both sides floundered through winter storms and prayed that ill-luck and hardship would keep from thinning their ranks too much. If Kelcrag retreated to his own lands, he'd come under siege, and ultimately lose if the besieging troops could be supplied and rotated. If he fled into exile, the Queen would have to mount an ever-present vigil against his returnâan expensive proposition. She and Leamount had both wanted to invoke the Mercenary Code ritual of Oathbreaking and Outcasting on himâbut while he
undeniably a rebel, he had actually broken no vows; nor could Sursha find the requisite triad for the full ceremony of priest, mage and honest man, all of whom
have suffered personal, irreparable harm at his hands as a result of violation of sworn oaths. So technically, he
have been seen by some to be the injured party.
And as for Kelcrag in such a situation, exile would mean impoverishment and hardship, circumstances he was not ready to face; further, it would bring the uncertainty of when or even
he could muster enough troops and allies to make a second try.
Kelcrag had chosen his ground with care, Tarma had to give him that. He had shale cliffs (impossible to scale) to his left, scrub forest and rough, broken ground to his right (keeping Leamount from charging from that direction); his troops were on the high ground, occupying a wide pass between the hills, with a gradual rising slope between the loyalists and his armyâ
It was as close to being an ideal situation for the rebels as Tarma could imagine. There was no way to come at him except straight on, and no way he could be flanked. And now the autumnal rains were beginning.
Of all of Idra's folks, only the scouts had been deployed, seeking (in vain) holes or weaknesses in Kelcrag's defenses. For the rest, it had been Set up camp, Dig in, and Wait. Wait for better weather, better information, better luck.
“Gahâ” Tarma groaned again. “I hope Kelcrag's as miserable on his damned hill as we are down here. Anything out of the mages?”
“Mine, or in general?”
“Mine have been too busy fending off nuisance-spells to bother with trying to see what's going on across the way. I've been setting up wards on the camp, protections on our commanders, and things like the
on the Healer's tent. I haven't heard anything directly from Leamount's greater mages, but I've got some guesses.”
“Which are?” Tarma stretched, then turned on her side.
“The Great Battle Magics were exhausted early on for
sides in this mess, and none of the mages have had time to regather power. That leaves the Lesserâwhich means they're dueling like a pair of tired but equally-matched bladesmen. Neither can see what the other is doing; neither can get anything through that's more than an annoyance. And neither wants to let down their guards and their shields enough to recharge in a power circle or open up enough to try one of the Greater Magics they might have left. So your people will be pretty much left alone except for physical, material attacks.”
“Well, that's a blessing, anyâ”
“Scoutmaster?” came a plaintive call from outside the tent. “Be ye awake yet?”
“Who the bloodyâ” Tarma scrambled for the lacings of the door flaps as Kethry hastily cut the spell about the door with two slashes of her hands and a muttered word.
“Get in here, child, before you turn into an ice lump!” Tarma hauled the half-frozen scout into their tent; the girl's brown eyes went round at the sight of the spell energy in the tent walls, wide and no little frightened. She looked like what she was, a mountain peasant; short, stocky and brown, round of face and eye. But she could stick to the back of her horse like a burr on a sheep, she was shrewd and quick, and nobody's fool. She was one of the Hawks Tarma had been thinking of when she'd mentioned other ways of keeping warm; Kyra was shieldmated to Rild, a mountain of a man who somehow managed to sit a horse as lightly as thin Tarma.
“Keth, this is Kyra, she's one of the new ones. Replaced Pawell when he went down.” Tarma pushed the girl down onto her bedroll and stripped the sodden black cloak from her shoulders, hanging it to dry beside her own coat. “Kyra, don't look so green; you've seen Keth in the Healer's tent; this is just a bit of magic so we sleep more comfortable. Keth's better than a brazier, and I don't have to worry about her tipping over in the night!”
The girl swallowed hard, but looked a little less frightened. “Beg pardon, but I ain't seen much magery.”
“I should think not, out in these hills. Not much call for it, nor money to pay for it. Soâspit it out; what brings you here, instead of curled up with that monster you call a shieldmate?”
The girl blushed brilliant red. “Na, Scoutmasterâ”
“Don't âna' me, my girl. I may not play the game anymore, but I know the rulesâand before the Warrior put her Oath on me, I had my moments, though you children probably wouldn't think it to look at me, old stick that I am. Out with itâsomething gone wrong with the pairing?”
“Eh, no! Naught like thatâI just been thinking. Couldn't get a look round before today; now seems I know this pass, like. Got kin a ways west, useta summer wi' âem. Cousins. If I'm aright, 'bout a day's ride west o' here. And there was always this rumor, see, there was this path up their wayâ”
Tarma didn't bother to hide her excitement; she leaned forward on her elbows, feeling a growing internal certainty that what Kyra was about to reveal was vital.
“âthere was this story abaht the path, dâye ken? The wild ones, the ponies, they used it. At weanin' time we'd go for 'em t' harvest the foals, but some on âem would allus get awayâwell, tales said they used that path, that it went all the way through t'other side. Dâye take my meaning?”
“Warrior Bright, you
I do, my girl!” Tarma jumped lithely to her feet, and pulled Kyra up after her. “Keth?”
“Right.” Kethry made the slashing motions again, and the magic parted from the door flaps. “Wait a hairâI don't want you two finding our answer and then catching your deaths.”
Another pass of hands and a muttered verse sent water steaming up out of coat and cloakâwhen Tarma pulled both off the centerpole they were dry to the touch.
Tarma flashed her partner a grin. “Thanks, milady. If you get sleepy, leave the door open for me, hey?”
Kethry gave a most unladylike snort. “As if I could sleep after this bit of news! I haven't been working with you for this long not to see what you sawâ”
“The end to the stalemate.”
“You've said it. I'll be awake for hours on this one.” Kethry settled herself with her blankets around her, then dismissed the magic altogether. The tent went dark and cold again, and Kethry relit her brazier with another muttered word. “I'll put that
back up when you get backâand make it fast! Or I may die of nerves instead of freezing to death!”
ack out into the cold and wet and dark they went, Kyra trailing along behind Tarma. She stayed right at Tarma's elbow, more a presence felt than anything seen, as Warrl, in mindtouch with Tarma, led both of them around washouts and the worst of the mud. Tarma's goal was the Captain's tent.
She knew full well it would be hours before Sewen and Idra saw
bedrolls; she'd given them the reports of her scouts just before fumbling her way to her own rest, and she knew they would still be trying to extract some bit of advantage out of the bleak word she'd left with them.
So Warrl led them to Idra's quarters; even in the storm-black it was the only tent
hard to find. Idra had her connections for some out-of the-ordinary items, and after twenty years of leading the Hawks, there was no argument but that she had more than earned her little luxuries. There was a bright yellow mage-light shining like a miniature moon atop each of the poles that held up a canvas flap that served as a kind of sheltered porch for the sentry guarding the tent. Unlike Keth's dim little witchlight, these were bright enough to be seen for several feet even through the rain. If it had been reasonable weather, and if there had been any likelihood that the camp would be attacked, or that the commanders of the army would be sought out as targets, Idra's quarters would be indistinguishable from the rest of the Hawksâ. But in weather like thisâIdra felt that being able to
her, quickly, took precedence over her own personal safety.
Idra's tent was about the size of two of the bivouac tents. The door flap was fastened down, but Tarma could see the front half of the tent glowing from more mage-lights within, and the yellow light cast shadows of Idra and Sewen against the canvas as they bent over the map-table, just as she'd left them.
Warrl was already moving into the wavering glow of the mage-lights. He was a good couple of horse-lengths in front of them, which was far enough that the sentry under that bit of sheltering canvas couldn't see Kyra and Tarma to challenge themâat least not yet. No matterâand no matter that Warrl's black fur couldn't be seen in the rain even with the glow of the mage-lights on him. Warrl barked three times out of the storm, paused, then barked twice more. That was his password. Every man, woman, and noncombatant in the Hawks knew Warrl and Warrl's signalâand knew that where Warrl was, Tarma was following after.
So by the time Tarma and Kyra had slogged the last few feet to the tent, the sentry was standing at ease, the door flap was unlaced, and Sewen was ready to hold it open for them against the wind. His muddy gray eyes were worried as he watched the two of them ease by him. Tarma knew what he was thinking; at this hour, any caller probably meant more trouble.
“I trust this isn't a social call,” Idra said dryly, as they squeezed themselves inside and stood, dripping and blinking, in the glow of her mage-lights. The mage-lights only made her plain leather armor and breeches look the more worn and mundane. “And I hope it isn't a disciplinary problemâ”
Kyra's autumnal eyes were even rounder than before; Tarma suppressed a chuckle. Kyra hadn't seen the Captain except to sign with her, and was patently in awe of her. “Captain, this is my new scout, Kyraâ”
“Replaced Pawell, didn't she?”
“Ayeâto make it short, she thinks she knows a way to come in behind Kelcrag.”
“Great good gods!” Idra half rose off of her tall stool, then sank down again, with a look as though she'd been startled out of a doze.
Well, that certainly got their attention,
Tarma thought, watching both Idra and her Second go from weary and discouraged to alert in the time it took to say the words.
“Câmere, kid,” Sewen rumbled. He took Kyra's wool-clad elbow with a hard and callused hand that looked fit to crush the bones of her arm, and which Tarma knew from experience could safely keep a day-old chick sheltered across a furlong of rough ground. He pulled her over to the table in the center of the tent. “Y'read maps, no? Good. Here's us. Here's him. Reportâ”
Kyra plainly forgot her awe and fear of magic, and the diffidence with which she had regarded her leaders, and became the professional scout beneath Sewen's prodding. The tall, bony Second was Idra's right hand and moreâwhere her aristocratic bearing sometimes overawed her own people, particularly new recruits, Sewen was as plain as a clod of earth and awed no one. Not that anyone ever thought of insubordination around him; he was just as respected as Idraâit was just that he looked and sounded exactly like what he was; a common fighter who'd come up through the ranks on brains and ability. He still dressed, by preference, in the same boiled-leather armor and homespun he'd always worn, though he could more than afford the kind of expensive riveted brigandine and doeskin Idra and Tarma had chosen. He understood everything about the Hawks from the ground upâbecause he'd served the Hawks since Idra's fifth year of commanding them. Idra and Tarma just leaned over the map-table with him and let him handle the young scout.