Who’s here?Ranon wondered.
The answer to that question turned a corner and came down the street a few minutes later. One man, wearing a vest and jacket over a shirt—too many clothes for the season and the weather. A Sceltie trotted beside him on his right. A few paces ahead of him, Vae bounced and danced with so much excitement it made Ranon tired just to watch her. And behind the man . . .
Twelve of them, spread out in a V that covered the whole street—and gave every one of them a clear line of sight. Scelties. If men had been coming toward him in a fighting V, he’d know what to do. Faced with dogs, he wasn’t sure how to respond—but a sudden memory of Vae pulling down a full-grown man in a fight had him creating a skintight shield around himself. Just in case.
Three of the Scelties spotted him and broke their position, dashing toward him. A barked order—literally—from the Sceltie trotting beside the man had them wheeling round, tails down in response to the reprimand, and returning to their position.
“Good afternoon to you,” the man called.
Curly brown hair, handsome face, lean body. Not much of a fighter, since he was approaching a stranger with his hands in his trouser pockets as if he were taking a simple stroll in his home village. But the stew of power Ranon was sensing from that group couldn’t be dismissed, and there was something in the man’s blue eyes that said this Warlord knew how to stop trouble—and how to make trouble.
“Good afternoon,” Ranon replied.
*They’re here!* Vae bounced and danced, but the men ignored her.
“Would you be Gray?” the man asked.
“I’m Ranon, First Circle in Lady Cassidy’s court and the Master’s second-in-command.”
“Ah. Well, since you were the second man I was asked to see, I think you’ll do as well for both.”
“I’m Khardeen, Warlord of Maghre. And this is Lord Ladvarian.” Khardeen held out a hand.
Ranon clasped the hand—and felt a quiver of fear when he saw the Sapphire ring on Khardeen’s right hand. This man could rip through his Opal shields and tear him apart with a single thought.
Then he glanced down and got another shock. The dog staring up at him wore a gold chain around its neck. A Red Jewel shone against the white ruff.
The human wasn’t the most dangerous Warlord to walk into their village.
Ladvarian looked at Vae.
*Ranon? Ladvarian wants to see the yard.*
“Uh . . . sure.” Since she’d been bouncing a minute before, he was uneasy about Vae sounding so subdued—and cautious.
Khardeen took a step to the side as Vae came around to position herself on Ladvarian’s left—the subordinate position. That done, fourteen Scelties trotted off and disappeared behind the Queen’s Residence.
“They aren’t going to dig, are they?” Ranon asked. “Gray will have a fit if they start digging in the gardens he’s been restoring back there. So will Cassidy.”
“No, they’ll be all right,” Khardeen replied. “Ladvarian was First Circle in the Dark Court. He knows about not digging in a Queen’s garden. Of course, some of the youngsters will need to have it explained to them more than once, but they’ll understand it sooner or later.”
Khardeen’s blue eyes twinkled. Ranon’s stomach sank in response.
“I gather Vae didn’t tell you about this?” Khardeen asked.
“Ah. Well, having been here long enough to assess the situation, Vae didn’t think she could take care of all the humans who needed a Sceltie’s help.”
“Really?” Mother Night.
“She talked to Ladvarian about helping her find other Scelties to take care of the other humans while she took care of the court. Then those two talked to Morghann and Jaenelle, and there you are—twelve youngsters who wanted the challenge of taking care of humans who have no kindred of their own.”
No. Oooh, no. “Who’s Morghann?” He’d heard the name before, somewhere, but it was the only question Ranon could think to ask. The only safe question, anyway.
“Morghann is the Queen of Scelt.”
Hell’s fire, Mother Night, and may the Darkness be merciful. Now he remembered. Cassie had mentioned Morghann when she was explaining court living arrangements in Kaeleer. And she’d mentioned Morghann’s husband, Khardeen.
The Queen of Scelt and the former Queen of Ebon Askavi had hand-picked these dogs to live here? How was he going to convince Khardeen to take them back? No matter what Vae thought,she was all thehumans could handle.
“What are they supposed to do?” Ranon asked.
“Oh, they’ll figure that out,” Khardeen said with a breeziness that was a bit terrifying. “They’re good at herding, and they’ll herd anything—sheep, ducks, goats, cows, children . . . stubborn males.”
“Can you take them back?”
“I can,” Khardeen said. “But you’ll be the one who will have to explain it to the Ladies, and any man who knows either of those Queens isn’t going to get within a mile of you while you do it.”
A wave of fur came around the Residence and spread out, tails wagging while they busily sniffed their surroundings.
Then one of the Scelties raced up to him and began dancing on its hind legs.
*My human! This is my human!*
It was the homeliest little dog Ranon had ever seen. He—because Ranon had picked up the caste of Warlord—had the Sceltie face and the Sceltie body, but the fur looked like it had been taken from the leftovers of a dozen different dogs and patched together any which way. There was white, tan, brown, black, and three shades of gray. Hodgepodge dog.
*I will take good care of him. I am going to live with him!*
“No, you’re not.” The words were honest and out before Ranon thought about it.
The dog stared at him for a moment, those brown eyes full of heart-breaking woe. Then the whimpering started, turning to whines and keening and . . .
*My human doesn’t want me!*
Ranon glanced at Khardeen. There was still some amusement and sympathy in those blue eyes, but underneath was the bite of anger.
*Can’t you do something*? Ranon asked Khardeen.
*I’m not the one who hurt his feelings.*
That anger made him uneasy, although Khardeen made no overt threat. Then he discovered he had a lot more reasons to worry.
He hadn’t seen them, hadn’t sensed them coming toward him. One moment he had one whining Sceltie sitting in front of him; the next he was surrounded—and the thirteen pairs of brown eyes staring at him held more than a bite of anger.