“Yep,” Shira said. “Little two-minute timers. If a cow or sheep gets into the brambles, he can stay for two minutes as a resting period. If he gets herded into the corral, he has to stay for two minutes before trying to escape. The object of the game is to get all the cows and sheep into the corral.”

“So who’s winning?” Cassidy asked.

Shira shrugged.

“Oh!” Reyhana said. “That looks like a stampede.”

The men were smart, skilled at working as a team, and had long legs. The dogs had speed, were using Craft to run on top of the snow, and were born with the ability to herd reluctant critters. The boys had an abundance of energy.

Based on what she was seeing, Cassidy figured the winners would be determined by which side had the most stamina.

*Would you bet on the men to win?* Cassidy asked Shira.

*Of course I would! Anything else would be disloyal.*

*Would you expect to win the bet?*

*Nope. So I wouldn’t bet much.*

Cassidy suppressed a laugh and watched the game.

One moment everyone was running, shouting, barking, laughing. The next, men and dogs stood frozen, staring at the house. The dogs growled softly. The men, Warlord Princes all, stared with eyes that began to glaze as they rose to the killing edge. Only the boys took a few more steps before realizing something was wrong.

Then everyone was in motion again. Darcy got in front of the boys. Khollie dashed for her and Shira. Shaddo and the silver twins headed around the house in one direction while Janos and Darkmist headed around the other side. Ranon and Gray moved together, heading for the kitchen door.

Then the Scelties hesitated, and Cassidy had the impression that information was being passed between all the warriors.

*What just happened?* Shira asked.

*An alert, I think,* Cassidy replied. But what had caused it? And would she ever get used to the way Warlord Princes could change in a heartbeat from laughing, easy men to warriors rising to the killing edge?

The back door opened and Dryden said, “Lady Cassidy, Prince Ferall and Prince Hikaeda are here and have asked if you could spare them a few minutes of your time.”

“Thank you, Dryden,” Cassidy said. As she turned to enter the house, she realized Gray and Ranon intended to come in with her. “You don’t have to interrupt your game. I can talk to them by myself.”

They looked at her. Just looked at her.

Overprotective and bossy—and they managed the bossy part without saying a word.

And would fight with her and for her to their last breath in order to protect her from real or potential harm, whether she wanted them to or not.

Sighing, she went inside, shrugged out of her coat and handed it to Frannie—and pretended she wasn’t worried about how to control Ranon’s and Gray’s response to men they knew.

She walked into the visitors’ parlor with Ranon and Gray moving to flank her—Gray on her left and Ranon on her right.

Vae wagged her tail in greeting, then trotted out of the room.

Well, that explained why the Scelties had relaxed a bit. Vae had been watching the guests and hadn’t given a call to battle.

What was she supposed to say to these men about being regarded with such suspicion just because they had asked to see her? Her former court hadn’t behaved this way, so she had no precedent.

Yes, she did. Jaenelle’s court.Her First Circle would have looked more casual, but they would have been just as prepared to fight.

Ferall gave her a quick glance before focusing on her men.

“Ranon,” Ferall said quietly. Then he studied Gray. “Jared Blaed.” Finally he looked at her. “Hikaeda and I are here on behalf of the Warlord Princes in our Province to wish you a Happy Winsol—and to thank you for the books. It means a lot to all of us to receive such a gift.”

“You’re very welcome, gentlemen,” Cassidy said, smiling. “Could I offer you some refreshments?”

“Thank you for the offer, but with your consent, we’d like to visit the main street and the shops there,” Ferall said. “Have a couple of special gifts to buy this year.”

The words sounded simple enough, but Cassidy heard uneasiness in his voice. Almost fear. As if he’d just revealed something terribly important and terribly fragile, and he was waiting to see how she would respond.

She smiled. “Then I won’t delay you any longer. I’ve gone shopping with my father when he wanted a special gift, so I know how long it can take a man to choose the right one.”

Smiles and chuckles all around.

“Jared Blaed and I could use some exercise, so we’ll walk over with you,” Ranon said casually.

You need some what?Cassidy almost blurted out. Then she realized it wasn’t casual at all, and felt insulted on behalf of the men who had come here in good faith.

She rounded on Ranon. “I’m sure Prince Ferall and Prince Hikaeda don’t need your escort for a little shopping.”

“In point of fact, Lady, we do,” Hikaeda said.

She turned back to her guests, surprised to hear Hikaeda defend Ranon.

“When a Warlord Prince comes into a village, it makes people nervous,” Ferall said. “And they have good reason to be nervous. We are what we are, Lady Cassidy. Predators. Killers.”

“It’s customary to give a Warlord Prince a local escort,” Hikaeda said. “It tells the people he isn’t there to hunt. Makes it easier for everyone.”

“I see.” Was that true in Kaeleer as well? She didn’t remember her First Circle offering escort to a Warlord Prince when one of them came to Bhak. Maybe she could ask her cousin Aaron if this was typical of all courts or just a Territory Queen’s. “In that case, I apologize for snapping at you, Ranon.”

They all looked surprised that she would apologize at all, let alone in public.

Suddenly she wanted them all gone so she could get a cup of spiced tea and think about all the undercurrents and unspoken messages that had filled this room in the past few minutes.

“You might want to stop at Whistler’s Tavern at some point,” Cassidy told Gray. “I think they’re serving steak pie along with some traditional Winsol dishes.”

Gray glanced at the other men. “I think we’ll do that.”

“Gentlemen.” She tipped her head, a small courtesy bow to indicate respect. “Happy Winsol.”

She walked back to the kitchen and found Shira and Reyhana sitting at the table with Devra and Maydra. All of them had cups of coffee, and there were two cookies left on a plate.

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