“I’ll fight in a bog,” Ermund said, “if it’ll bring Darnel within reach of my sword. Do not mistake the temper of your knights, my lord. Their course was not chosen lightly and they’ll follow you to the Beyond and back if you command it.”
“I don’t doubt their temper, Ermund,” Banders assured him. “But our fief lost enough wars to learn the lesson that a charging wall of steel cannot win every battle. And supposing we do manage to take the city, the bulk of the enemy’s strength is still besieging Alltor. And when they’re finished, where do you suppose they’ll march next?”
“From what little intelligence we can gather,” Sollis said, “Fief Lord Mustor has held out far longer than expected. Winter will be closing in by the time the Volarians take his capital and subdue his fief. Long enough for us to entrench, gather strength from Nilsael and the Reaches.”
At mention of the Reaches Banders turned to one of his captains, a veteran knight in white-enamelled armour. “No word, I take it, Lord Furel?”
“It’s a long ride to Meanshall,” the knight replied. “And a longer voyage to the Reaches. Our messengers were sent only ten days ago.”
“I had hoped he’d be on the move by now,” Banders mused and Frentis had no need to hear the name in the forefront of his mind.
“He is,” he said. “I know it.” He looked at Brother Sollis who replied with a nod. “And having Varinshold in our hands by the time he arrives will make our task much easier.”
“You ask me to risk much on the basis of faith alone, brother,” Banders replied.
“Faith,” Frentis replied, “is my business, my lord.”
• • •
The baron’s army was well supplied with horses, most taken from the estates of knights who had sided with Darnel. They were all stallions, impressively tall at the shoulder with the restlessness of horses bred to the charge. Master Rensial wandered the temporary paddock where the horses were corralled, seemingly unaware of their snorts and whinnies as he played his hands over flanks and neck, his expression the concentrated stare of the expert.
“Not so . . .” Davoka fumbled for the right word as they watched the master go about his work. “Ara-kahmin. Head-sickness.”
“Mad,” Frentis said, seeing the surety with which Master Rensial moved. “Not so mad when he’s with horses. I know.”
“He looks on you and sees a son,” Davoka said. “You know this too?”
“He sees many things. Most of which are not there.”
The master chose a horse for each of them, leading a youthful grey to Frentis and a broad black charger to Davoka. “Too big,” she said, moving back a little as the great horse sniffed her. “No ponies here?”
“No,” Master Rensial told her simply and walked off to select more mounts.
“You’ll get used to him,” Frentis assured her, scratching the grey’s nose. “Wonder what name you’ll earn.”
“Merim Her,” Davoka muttered in derision. “People are named. Horses used and eaten.”
They rode south at midday, Brother Sollis scouting ahead with his brothers, the knights and retainers following in a tight column. At the baron’s order, every man was armoured and ready for battle. The peasant rebels followed behind on foot, mostly hardy-looking men with little armour but a rich variety of weapons. There was a grim uniformity to their expression that Frentis knew well, the faces of the wronged and the angry. From the stories Ivern had told him of the brother’s journey from the Pass it was clear that, shorn of the Crown’s authority, Darnel had lost little time in settling long-nurtured grievances, much of his ire falling on the common folk who worked the lands of his enemies. Frentis’s company, few of whom could be called expert riders, made up the rear-guard, strung out in a loose formation many had difficulty maintaining for long.
“I . . . fucking . . . hate . . . horses!” Draker huffed as he bounced along on the back of the russet-coated stallion Rensial had chosen for him.
“It’s easy!” Illian told him, spurring on ahead, moving in the saddle with accustomed ease. “Just raise yourself up a little at the right moment.”
She laughed as Draker made a less-than-perfect attempt to comply, thumping himself onto the saddle with a hard grunt. “Oh, my unborn children.”
Next to Frentis and Master Rensial, Arendil and Illian were easily his best riders. He sent Arendil west and Illian east with instructions to scout the flanks and strict orders to return on seeing any sign of friend or foe. Lady Ulice had betrayed a clear unhappiness at sending Arendil out of her sight once again but confined her objections to a stern scowl. She had joined them as they were forming up, offering few words beyond a statement that she would be travelling with her son by order of the baron, though she did seem heartened by the presence of Davoka.
“I know I owe you his life,” she told the Lonak woman. “Whatever you require by way of thanks . . .”
“Arendil is Gorin to me,” Davoka told her shortly, adding when the lady frowned in incomprehension, “Clan.” Davoka held her arm out and swept it around their company, from Frentis to Thirty-Four and Draker still wincing with every jolt of his saddle. “My clan. Burnt Forest Clan.” She barked a laugh. “Now yours.”
“You could go home now,” Ulice told her. “The north is clear all the way to the mountains.”
Davoka’s expression darkened as if she had been insulted, but softened when she saw the woman’s honest curiosity. “Queen is not found,” Davoka said. “No home for me until she is.”
• • •
They entered the rougher hill country by late evening, Banders acceding to Sollis’s choice of campsite; the north-facing slope of a promontory offering clear views in all directions and shielded on the southern side by a deep ravine. Fires were permitted now, Banders knowing full well further attempts at concealing such a large force would be redundant this far into Asraelin territory.
Frentis’s company were given the eastern flank to guard and he posted pickets in a tight line, pairs of fighters standing three-hour shifts. Illian returned as he was touring the perimeter. “You stayed out too long,” he told her. “Arendil got in an hour ago. Be back before nightfall in future.”
“Sorry, brother,” she replied, avoiding his gaze and he realised her embarrassment from this morning still lingered.
“Anything to report?” he asked in a less severe tone.
“Not another soul for miles around,” she replied, brightening a little. “Except for a wolf ten miles back. I’ve never seen one so big, I must say. Nor so bold, just sat there looking at me for what seemed an age.”
Probably smelling the blood to come, Frentis thought. “Good. Get some rest, my lady.”
He completed his tour of the pickets, finding the remaining fighters in a resilient mood. Now the terrors of their flight from the forest were over they were as combative as ever, many voicing an eagerness to get to Varinshold.
“The scales haven’t shifted yet, brother,” former City Guard Corporal Vinten told him, the slightly wild gleam in his eye provoking memories of Janril Norin. “Far too much blood weighing on our side. We’ll balance them at Varinshold or die trying.”
He returned to the main camp, sharing a meal with those still awake. Thirty-Four had taken on much of the cooking duties these days, producing a tasty stew of freshly caught partridge and wild mushrooms that put Arendil’s amateur efforts to shame.
“They teached you cooking as well as torturin’, then?” Draker asked him between mouthfuls, the grease beading his beard as he chewed.
“My last master’s cook-slave fell ill during the voyage here,” Thirty-Four replied in his now eerily accentless Realm Tongue. “He was required to teach me his skills before he died. I have always been able to learn quickly.”
Lady Ulice accepted a bowl of stew from the former slave, her expression cautious. “Torturing?” she asked.
“I was a numbered slave,” Thirty-Four replied in his precise, uncoloured tones. “A specialist. Schooled in the arts of torture from childhood.” He continued to ladle out the stew as the lady stared at him, her gaze slowly tracking across the faces around the fire. Frentis knew she was seeing them truly for the first time, the brutality that had shaped them now plain in the hard set of Draker’s eyes, Illian’s frowning concentration as she tightened the string on her crossbow, and the preoccupied cast in Arendil’s eyes as he stared into the fire, spooning stew into his mouth with automatic and unconscious regularity.
“It was a hard road, my lady,” Frentis told her. “Hard choices had to be made.”
She looked at her son, reaching over to smooth the hair back from his forehead, drawing a tired smile. “I’m not a lady,” she said. “If we are to be clan-mates, you should know that. I am the unacknowledged bastard daughter to Baron Banders, nothing more. My name is just Ulice.”
“No,” Arendil stated, casting a hard glare around the fire. “My mother’s name is Lady Ulice, and any calling her by a different name will answer to me.”