‘Dear Kurik,’ she said warmly ‘How are Aslade and the boys?’
‘Well, Sephrenia,’ he replied. ‘Very well indeed.’
‘I’m so glad to hear it.’
‘Kalten said you’d be coming along,’ he said to her. ‘I have water boiling for your tea.’ He looked at Flute, who had her face nestled against Sephrenia’s. ‘Have you been keeping secrets from us?’
She laughed, a rippling cascade of a laugh. ‘That’s what Styrics do best, Kurik.’
‘Let’s get you all inside where it’s warm.’ He turned and led the way across the rubble-strewn courtyard of the ruin, leaving Berit to care for the horses.
‘Was it a good idea to bring him along?’ Sparhawk asked, jerking his thumb back over his shoulder in the direction of the novice. ‘He’s a little young for an all-out battle.’
‘He’ll be all right, Sparhawk,’ Kurik said. ‘I took him to the practice field at Demos a few times and gave him some instruction. He handles himself well and he learns fast.’
‘All right, Kurik,’ Sparhawk said, ‘but when the fighting starts, stay close to him. I don’t want him getting hurt.’
‘I never let you get hurt, did I?’ Sparhawk grinned at his friend. ‘No. As I recall, you didn’t.’
They stayed the night in the ruin and rode out early the following morning. Their combined forces numbered just over five hundred men, and they rode south under a still-threatening sky Just beyond Darra stood a nunnery with yellow sandstone walls and a red tile roof. Sparhawk and Sephrenia turned aside from the road and crossed a winter-browned meadow towards the building.
‘And what is the child’s name?’ the black-robed Mother Superior asked when they were admitted into her presence in a severely simple room with only a small brazier to warm it.
‘She doesn’t talk, mother,’ Sparhawk replied. ‘She plays those pipes all the time, so we call her Flute.’
‘That is an unseemly name, my son.’
‘The child doesn’t mind, Mother Superior,’ Sephrenia told her.
‘Did you make some effort to find her parents?’
‘There was no one in the vicinity when we found her,’ Sparhawk explained.
The Mother Superior looked gravely at Sephrenia. ‘The child is Styric, she pointed out. ‘Would it not perhaps be better to put her with a family of her own race and her own faith?’
‘We have pressing business,’ Sephrenia said, ‘and Styrics can be very difficult to find when they choose to be’
‘You know, of course, that if she stays with us, we will raise her in the Elene faith?’
Sephrenia smiled. ‘You will try, Mother Superior. I think you will find that she’s not amenable to conversion, however. Coming, Sparhawk?’
They rejoined the column and rode south under clearing skies, moving first at a rolling trot and then at a thunderous gallop. They crossed a knoll, and Sparhawk reined Faran in sharply, staring in astonishment at Flute, who sat cross-legged on a large white rock playing her pipes. ‘How did you – ‘ he began, then broke off. ‘Sephrenia,’ he called, but the white-robed woman had already dismounted. She approached the child, speaking gently to her in that strange Styric dialect.
Flute lowered her pipes and gave Sparhawk an impish little grin. Sephrenia laughed and took the child in her arms.
‘How did she get ahead of us?’ Kalten asked, his face baffled.
‘Who knows?’ Sparhawk replied. ‘I guess I’d better take her back.’
‘No, Sparhawk,’ Sephrenia said firmly. ‘She wants to go with us.’
‘That’s too bad,’ he said bluntly ‘I’m not going to take a little girl into battle.’
‘Don’t concern yourself with her, Sparhawk. I’ll care for her.’ She smiled at the child nestled in her arms. ‘I’ll care for her as if she were my own.’ She laid her cheek against Flute’s glossy black hair. ‘In a way, she is.’
He gave up. ‘Have it your own way,’ he said. Just as he began to wheel Faran around, he felt a sudden chill accompanied by the sense of an implacable hatred. ‘Sephrenia!’ he said sharply.
‘I felt it, too!’ she cried, drawing the little girl closer to her. ‘It’s directed at the child!’
Flute struggled briefly, and Sephrenia, looking surprised, set her down. The little girl’s face was set, looking more annoyed than angered or frightened. She set her pipes to her lips and began to play. The melody this time was not that light air in a minor key which she had played before. It was sterner and peculiarly ominous.
Then from some distance away they heard a sudden howl of pain and surprise. The howl immediately began to fade, as if whoever or whatever had made it were fleeing at an unimaginable rate.
‘What was that?’ Kalten exclaimed.
‘An unfriendly spirit,’ Sephrenia replied calmly.
‘What drove it away?’
‘The child’s song. It seems that she has learned to protect herself.’
‘Do you understand any of what’s going on here?’ Kalten asked Sparhawk.
‘No more than you do. Let’s keep moving. We’ve still got a couple of days of hard riding ahead of us.’
The castle of Count Radun, the uncle of King Dregos, was perched atop a high, rocky promontory. Like so many of the castles in this southern kingdom, it was surrounded by massive walls. The weather had cleared off, and the noonday sun was very bright as Sparhawk, Kalten, and Sephrenia, who still carried Flute in front of her saddle, rode across a broad meadow of yellow grass towards the fortress.
They were admitted without question; in the courtyard they were met by the count, a blocky man with heavy shoulders and silver-shot hair. He wore a dark green doublet trimmed in black and surmounted by a heavily starched white ruff of a collar. It was a style which had gone out of fashion in Elenia decades ago. ‘My house is honoured to welcome the knights of the Church,’ he declared formally after they had introduced themselves.
Sparhawk swung down off Faran’s back. ‘Your hospitality is legendary, my Lord,’ he said, ‘but our visit is not entirely social. Is there someplace private where we can talk? We have a matter of some urgency to discuss with you.’
‘Of course,’ the count replied. ‘If you will all be so good as to come with me.’ They followed him through the broad doors of his castle and along a candlelit corridor strewn with rushes. At the end of the corridor, the count produced a brass key and unlocked a door. ‘My private study,’ he said modestly. ‘I’m rather proud of my collection of books. I have almost two dozen.’