“Too highborn to be considered low, but holdings too small and poor to be accepted by the high,” Leifa answered.
“That is what I understood.”
Leifa glanced at Rakyn. His gaze rested away, over the rolling hills of hay and grain toward the river vale and Camphor town, though his sight wasn’t fixed on that. It could have been the town, the river glinting in the morning light, the forested foothills beyond, or even Lake Sheefa unseen behind the hills. Rakyn scratched the dark two day scruff that covered his neck, running his fingers up his chin. He looked tired, though Leifa couldn’t say if that were odd. She’d seen him out of armor only once before. When his misty green eyes came back to her, it sent a jolt through her so that she said the upper thought in her mind.
“So why did you ask?”
“Because I wanted to see if you’d tell me the truth.”
Leifa shifted her weight to the rear of her saddle and tilted her chin to the sky. “Hah, I don’t think my birth is much of a secret, my lord.”
He gave her a twist of a smile to the gull’s wings of his lips. His eyes showed no matching spark. He is tired then. Despite herself, Leifa felt a twinge of guilt. She looked away, forcing herself to stop studying him so close even though he seemed uncaring of it.
The morning mist still clung to the forest where her men were camped. Her lord and the King had given her more men to see her here. The tents and horses filled the shadows along the forest’s edge where the pine grew thick. It was hard to tell their numbers. Rakyn’s encampment was already touched by the sun. His banner, an azure blue pennant with a black hawk, streamed above the tents in the brightening light.
Leifa’s horse shifted uncomfortably. Her eyes fell on Rakyn’s profile again where he leaned forward onto forearms resting on the high pommel of his saddle. He was full of silences and frowns. It was not how she had imagined him, nor had guessed from their brief time in each other’s company. Put him in armor before his men and Leifa would have been able to judge his intention’s so well her men whispered she could read his mind. Today, she could not tell what troubled him.
Unless it was what Surrey claimed. Leifa’s teeth tugged at the inside of her lip. His eyes turned toward her with a slowness as if he fought through a heavy weight. Pulling himself upright, his horse shied under him.
“Shall we ride somewhere? You can tell me of this childhood of yours and how you’ve come to be such a bane to me.”
“As you wish, my lord. It is you who requested me and this meeting. I will ride and speak of my upbringing if it pleases you.”
The smirk touched his eyes this time as he put his heel to his great black stallion.
Leifa cinched the buckle flush across his wrist, locking it tight. Lord Rakyn’s eyes widened and he struggled against the piece of shirt filling his mouth. Leifa was tempted to loosen the bonds just a bit, but the tightest part wasn’t on his sword hand. She had made sure of that. The worst thing Lord Rakyn faced was discomfort. And possible humiliation, she thought with a smile.
That slow look of satisfaction on her face brought his brows together. He twisted his body, trying to kick through the tightened tangle of sheets that encased him. It really wasn’t having much affect other than to demonstrate his anger. He stopped when he saw the dirk in her hand.
She placed her left hand on his forehead, brushing back his black hair. His nostrils were flaring between his frustration and the impediment of the mouthful of cloth. The bandage wrapped around her palm brushed against his cheek. It was the same fabric the muffled his shouts, the other half of his once fine shirt. Leifa had used his belt to tie his wrists to a bedpost.
The blade glinted in the candlelight, his misty green eyes on it rather than her. They sought her after a moment. He held no fear, nor anger now, just a look that asked why. Leifa resisted the urge to sit on the bed next to him and explain.
“Trust me, I wanted to defeat you on the battlefield not like this. I despise the deceit as much as you. But it was the only way. You mustn’t have the pieces to Aero’s Warhammer.”
His eyes said what he could not. She read his promise of revenge as well as the fury of his vengeance. The knife inched towards his throat. She should kill him, she knew that. But he had always been the best of her advisories. She had dreamed of the day she would defeat him, knowing it would mark the moment the war turned in the favor or her King and cause. Knowing that from that moment on, no one would challenge her half so much or well. But her dream of triumph had never looked like this.
Leifa stood up suddenly, pulling her hand back. She stashed the dirk into the leather that belted her green wool dress. Lord Rakyn’s eyes were questioning again rather than angry. With maybe just a hint of relief, she thought.
“You must be quiet, my lord. Just a while longer.” Leifa smiled at him, her eyes sweeping up his black pants, silk sheets knotted around his ankles and calves to the lower bed posts, higher to his shirtless chest and finally to his eyes.
“I wish I had just a bit more time, truly I do. But duty cannot wait. Until the next time, my lord.”
She grabbed the spare page’s tunics she’d found in a trunk along with four cloaks colored in his black and bright blue as she headed toward the tent door.
Her young stallion with its dusky bay coat danced under her as he came up the stream bank. Leifa patted his neck and he calmed. Rakyn had pulled up his mount ahead. They stood waiting for her, Rakyn’s face in the shadows cast by the gnarled trees of the forest.
Her stomach tightened to contain a brief fluttering. Neither of them carried swords. It had been part of the arrangement. Even so, Leifa wondered why she had agreed to ride down the hill with him alone. Steel wasn’t needed to end a life. And surely, after what she had done, he had every cause to desire an end to hers.
“You promised to tell me why a noblewoman such as yourself can fight.”
A smiled spread across her lips. “So I did.” Her laughter rolled the words.
“You mock me?”
“No, my lord. I don’t think I’ve ever been called a noblewoman. Not even by my lady mother.”
“Your servants, surely?”
“Hah, we had two, my lord. A maid, who tended my mother mostly, and a field hand. The rest we did ourselves.”
Rakyn checked his horse and stared down at her. The anger of his disbelief faded as he blinked, his spine relaxing again. This time as he nudged his horse on, he glanced at her from the corner of his eye.
“My mother or the maid, till I was older. Then my brother or I would come up with something when we were left to ourselves.”
“The horses? Feeding livestock, field work? Surely you had more help than that?”
“My brother and I tended our three horses from the time we could reach beyond their legs. We all shared chores with the village lads. There weren’t not much difference between them and us. Our house was larger and we had a title. Their families were supposed to pay us taxes for the land they used that was said to be ours. But really, it came down more to sharing what we had so we’d all just get by.”
Lord Rakyn was shaking his head. “That explains maybe a bit of how you can sneak across the countryside with scant supplies and hardly a notice. But how did you learn to fight?”
Leifa smiled at the memory of it. The chickens underfoot in the old stone courtyard. In the warming air, she could smell the green of the garden where it was sheltered to the side of the house while the courtyard smelled of dust and sweat. Her brother panting under the layers of padding, trying to swat her with a wooden sword while old Sir Landell barked orders where he stood leaning on his walking stick. He had always looked so slow, but he could whip that stick out to smack her or her brother before they could blink and have it back as if he had never moved.
“I was older than my brother.”
“Was?” Rakyn interrupted.
“He was killed in the battle at Castle Krey.”
Rakyn sat back, his face paling as his eyes unfocused.
“It wasn’t you, my lord. It was Sir Merkthon.”
He gave her a bashful grin. “It is good to know you don’t want to kill me for spilling family blood. That would make this a bit more awkward.”
Leifa snorted and shook her head.
“So your brother?”
“Oh aye, we had no men at arms but there was an old knight who lived in the village. He paid his tithe by teaching my brother the way of the sword. For a time, he used village boys. But they were needed in the fields or the smithy. The folk tried to honor my lord father, but it was a hardship and he knew it.”
“But I liked to watch them practice. There was naught anyone to teach me needlework beyond mending. So once the horses were brushed and the garden cared for, I would watch my brother swing his wooden sword in the yard. Until one day no village lad came along. I remember the old knight looking around and his eyes landing on me. ‘You’ll do,’ he said. And that was that. I was padded up and given a sword so my brother could try to hit me.”
“Your mother didn’t object?”
“Nah, she was timid and not often well. Even without that, not many crossed my father. He watched Jake and I a few times and after that gave his approval for me to practice with my brother. It was supposed to be until there was another son, but there weren’t none. So it was me and Jake until the war.”
Rakyn was silent a moment. “Who was the knight?”
Rakyn glanced over at her quickly. “The Stormslayer? He taught you?” Leifa nodded. “Well that does explain the other bit. I always wondered why you outwitted my tactics.”
They were ridding uphill again. The valley spread out at their feet, behind the forest rising with its pointed firs and beyond to the two camps of soldiers. One figure on horseback stood on the summit of the hill between.
“You have always been a great challenge, my lord.”
Leifa meant it. He paused, weighing her face before he looked away with a snort.
“Yes, and what would you think if you’d heard of my defeat on some battlefield?”
Leifa sat still, but her horse sensed the tension in her. He tossed his head and mouthed his bit. She met Rakyn’s eyes.
“I would have been happy in that I’d know the last great obstacle to winning the war was gone, and I would have been saddened to know that the only commander who had challenged me was dead.”
He held her gaze a moment before frowning and looking away. His eyes found the silhouette of the mounted figure behind them.
Leifa pulled up her horse when they were still half a day’s ride from camp. Brekin, cagey as an old thistle, looked at her from the corner of his eye, frowned, then spit.
“We can make camp by dark.”
Leifa pulled the reins over her horse’s head and stroked his neck. She had no squire to give the timid stallion’s care to.
“We are riding not into our camp, but the King’s. I’ll not shame our lord with a scruffy gang of scrappy riders even if it is us who is bringing back Aero’s Warhammer.”
Brekin raised his eyebrows and after a moment leaned forward to swing his leg over his saddle. A band of tension eased in Leifa’s shoulders. Brekin always fought her and it was his dissension that stirred unease in the small band of fighters she led. When he cooperated, everything went smoother. When he questioned, they could be spinning words for hours until he finally agreed. Ordering never worked well. Someone would always have doubts, a moment of indecision.
“I want the armor polished and Jenddric, see if you can figure out how to put that bloody thing together.”
Jenddric’s gaze dropped to the three pieces of the Warhammer before he met her eyes and nodded. He turned his horse and headed back to a flat section clear of brush. Jenddric was a smith turned warrior who knew how to create clever devices or fix something when Leifa would have sworn it was beyond repair. If anyone could find a way to fit the Warhammer back together, it would be him.
Half a day without fighting was a rare treat for the men. Even camp had its protocols and chores. But here, along the edge of the Black Wood, no lord’s eyes stood to inspect, the chores were putting up a few tents, cleaning armor, mending leather, and cooking dinner. All things shared by the men under her command. None were wealthy enough to have squires, though two had been knighted when they were younger.
Plus, this was an afternoon after a great victory that had been won without a blow falling. There was no blood to clean from swords, and no dents to knock out of metal, unless they hadn’t been fixed before. No shields were split, no stains to be washed from cloaks. Yet the Warhammer was her’s. Leifa smiled at the thought, then grinned once more at Lord Rakyn’s glaring eyes the last time she’d seen him, when she’d left him gagged and tied to his bed. Whistling, Leifa went to help young Tommas cut saplings for tent stakes.
“Who watches you so closely?”
“Him? That is Surrey. And how can you be sure he is not watching you, my lord?”
“Surrey . . . you mean Lord Steffen Darkblade?”
“So your King calls him, I hear. It is nice that he has acknowledged Surrey’s name and title again, especially as he had him killed.”
Rakyn’s brows pulled together as he opened his mouth. He looked away suddenly, from her, from Surrey. Whatever he had meant to say died with his averted gaze. The sound of the wind stretched between them.
“Is it true? That he went to into the depths of the earth and learned to forge a sword in the ancient way?”
“I don’t know about the time he was away or caves with hidden people. I’ve heard the rumors, but I do not know him well enough to ask if they are true. The sword is real though. I’ve seen it and they say he forged it for our King.”
“You fight for him and your King, but you don’t know them.”
She breathed in at the statement. It wasn’t a question, but it sought an answer.
“I fight for Lord Allyander, who is a bannerman for the Lord of Castle West. You know this, I’m sure. I have not had much cause to be in the company of the King or his best knights.”
Rakyn paused, then turned the topic again. “And you do not want to know about my upbringing?” He pushed his horse into a slow walk, meandering down the hill so that they were in profile to Surrey and both camps.
“Your family holds from the Fent Wood to the Erryn’s Bay, one of the ten great holdings and lands in the kingdom.”
“Yes, everyone knows that.” Rakyn’s voice was flat.
“You trained at Tine Castle under Sir Brandon Giles, a great knight it is said. You won your first tourney at fourteen, and held off an invasion of the Geyf with just the men at arms and villagers around the castle at sixteen. You had beat them back before even your lord father came from Moch Lay Castle. For that, you were knighted.”
He glanced over at her. “You been told my history.”
“Oh, Surrey made sure I knew who you were on the way over, but I knew you before that. I would be remiss to not know who I fought, for one.”
“But you knew before that?”
“Yes, Sir Landell thought my brother and I should know all the great houses and those who promised to be great knights. I’ve known your name since I was eleven.”
Rakyn sat up straighter, his shoulders pushed back. A lighter mood crossed his face. “That is an honor I didn’t know.”
“It pleases you that Sir Landell recognized you when young?” Leifa smiled too as their horses ambled along shoulder to shoulder. Such a thing would have pleased her as well, she knew. “I think he always hoped that a knight on the way to tourney would stop by for a day. Whenever he heard a horse, he’d look down the road to see who was riding by.”
“Oh well, if I would have known the paths our lives would take, I would have loved to ride into your courtyard while your brother and you were there with Sir Landell.”
Leifa chuckled. “That would have been a site, my lord. My brother wearing rough spun clothes fighting a dusty girl under the gaze of an old knight with you on a great war horse, shining armor and silken trappings. We would have stared like open mouthed commoners.”
“What, you don’t think they would have let you fight me?” His eyes flashed with amusement.
“Hah, they most would have made me go in the house and put on a dress.”
“I’ve seen you in a dress before. It was not such a bad thing.”
Leifa’s cheeks warmed. “That is very kind of you to say so, considering the circumstances.”
Rakyn chuckled deep in his chest, a solid sound that made the memories of that night all the more real. The warmth in her slipped lower.
It was beyond the turning point of the night. Sentries stood silent guard in the light of nearly extinguished torches. Leifa wore the dress of a commoner even if under its skirts she concealed a long knife and leaf bladed dagger. It had allowed her to walk into the camp of her enemy as if she were any lady of the dark seeking a night’s wages.
She had only wanted to find her way into any fighter’s tent, knight or squire had mattered not. Just privacy and access to clothing common to the lords encamped was all she needed. When Lord Rakyn had wandered by as she flirted with a knight among several other lady’s, she had not known what to say when he had stopped and looked her over. But he had not recognized her, at least for who she was. She did not think they had ever met without armor and helms.
It had emboldened her enough to flirt with him as well. “Do you like what you see, my lord commander?”
“You are not the common camp follower.” It was a statement. Maybe a threat? He knew her to be out of place. It send fire and frost down her back.
Leifa had stepped toward him, tilting her chin up to look him square in the eye and painted the devil of a smile on her face.
“No, not the common sort at all.”
She wasn’t sure what allure had caught him, maybe the same thrill of slight danger that had caused her to walk toward him, but he had led her back to his pavilion, dismissing his sentries as she ducked under the flap he held open for her. The opportunity had been too perfect with such little cost. Wine, some lies of her past that were not so untrue, Leifa had kept him talking as much as she could, hoping for stray hints of where the hammer had been found or where Rakyn took his men. But talk only lasted so long when the purpose of her visit was a different sort of companionship.
She had not thought to enjoy that first kiss. Or the way his strong hands had moved up from her hip and cupped to fit her breast. She had fumbled for his belt with other intentions for a moment, which she tried to forget as she walked slowly through the darkened camp. Only a few knights had sentries posted and of those, only two or three were awake.
“You between customers, wench?”
“Why are you available and with coin, my fine guard?”
Leifa stepped closer to him. He was older with a hard face and big hands holding a spear. The air was sour around him, but she smiled with a tilt of her head. Her left hand throbbed where Lord Rakyn’s knife had bit into the flesh of her palm. He’d been aiming for her throat when he realized what she really needed his belt for, so Leifa counted the wound lucky. It could have been much worse. She’d covered his mouth with her own so he couldn’t shout as she tore at his shirt. When they’d come up for air, her on top of him where she’d pushed him on the bed, she’d jammed half the silken fabric between his lips to curtail his planned yell.
The guard glanced down the nearly deserted rows of tents and shuffled his feet. “Nah, I’m on duty till dawn.”
“Well, if I’m still here then, I know where to find you.”
Leifa tossed him a wink and kept walking, putting a swagger into her hips. It kept any remaining eyes firmly below her face. Beyond the last torch, she pulled out the bundle of tunics and cloaks she’d carried under her cloak.
Surrey had disappeared from the ridge, but the momentary jovial mood had faded from Rakyn. His temperament seemed to swing to darkness and bubbling anger. After what she had done and taken from him, Leifa was not surprised. Though his mood seemed to foul the air as clouds reached into the fine day, overtaking the sun like a dark army. She expected arrows of rain to assault them within a few hours time.
Rakyn watched the clouds as well. “Perhaps we should continue tomorrow. How long are you given to remain here?”
“I am here at your bidding, my lord. As long a you wish to meet.”
He snorted and didn’t even look at her. His fingers were twisted with the reins so tightly that his knuckles were white with the strain. “I don’t want to know what they told you to say, but the truth of it. Judge for yourself, how long are you here for?”
Leifa looked away to hide her annoyance at his tone. “Two, maybe three days. We are at war, Rakyn. Both of us are wanted on the field. If we dally here too long, our commanders will wonder why. Do we try to keep each other occupied as a feint? Give an advantage or hide a maneuver?”
Rakyn sighed, his eyes still resting on the valley. “Is that what you wonder? If I am just trying to keep you from taking the field?”
“It has crossed my mind, but I am here to hear what you have to say.”
“You respect me enough to give me a few days.”
“For a sworn enemy, that is something, I would think.” He did not answer. “Shall we head back then and meet tomorrow?”
“No, we’d best continue on, I think. We should finish this today.”
A quiver ran through Leifa again. The freshening wind brought the smell of drying grass and herbs to her, fluttering aside a few bands of her burnished brown hair. Her horse snorted under her, a warm wet sound as his lungs pressed his sides against her legs and then out. When she opened her eyes, Rakyn’s eyes were on her.
“And what are we finishing?”
Rakyn looked away. “We’ll come to that. You said you don’t know Lord Steffen, are not well known to even your King. Why then did you choose their side? What difference does it make to you? Surely, it is not the story of Princess Efflyn’s murder and the swap of a village lad for her son?”
“No, you are right. I care not if King Aiden is Princess Efflyn’s son and has as much claim to the throne as his uncle. I would follow him if he were the village lad just as soon as a prince.”
Rakyn’s voice was impatient and pitched to be heard over the growing wind. Leifa turned her horse to face him, tired of his avoidances and the compatriotic animosity. She preferred to face him, be it in battle or with words.
“Why? Under your King, my family is nothing and will always remain so. Do you know what Allyander asked when I came to him after a battle, covered in blood and gore?” She continued to his shake of the head, “He asked if I always fought such.”
“What did you say?”
Rakyn’s lips twitched and his level gaze broke as he glanced back towards the two encampments. Leifa sighed and leaned forward to rest with one arm on the saddle’s pommel, mimicking Rakyn’s earlier pose. Her gaze went back to the empty hill.
“Surrey’s sister fights in her way and the armies have taken in other women. But few grew up fighting as I have, but they are learning. When someone comes to King Aiden or his commanders, they do not ask after family name but ability. For that, I stay.”
“Any why him? Why has Lord Ste . . . Surrey escorted you and not Allyander?”
Leifa’s face flushed again, but this time with pride. She looked to the ground under her horse’s hooves failing to rid herself of a smile.
“You had better tell me, or I shall be left to think you’ve fallen for his lordship.”
“Hah, no. Nothing such as that. He was curious about you. We know you for the greatest commander that King Dafoss has. You found the pieces of the Warhammer, have won every pitched engagement you’ve joined. But he has not encountered you in battle.”
“Yes, every field battle, but I’ve never managed to thwart your cutting sneak attacks that harry my men and thin their numbers. Why have I never faced you on a plain? I’ve never seen you with more than twenty men, if that.”
“Twenty is about right, yes. I’ve been trained to fight, but have never led a pitched battle yet. I’ve always asked for volunteers who would serve under a woman without trepidation. Every win has given me a few more. I take them on, try them out. I like to have the assignments the men will not take, bleak passes on impossible trails. But I think the war has gone beyond that now. We will confront King Dafoss’ army soon, go through the great lords one by one. The time for harrying you, my lord, is done.”
“Aye, I think you have got the heart of it there. After the Warhammer’s loss, I think they will turn to fight hoping to scatter you before you’ve learned to use it.” He looked back at Leifa. “Tell me how many men stealing the Warhammer from me won you.”
She grinned. “Two hundred, at least.”
“You’ll outmatch my force soon then.” Rakyn shook his head, stopping mid-motion. “There is more. Surrey did not come here just to see me. You avoided me on that.”
Leifa’s tight lips pulled into a smile. The words were still too new to believe, much less share. The desire to hold back reversed itself like the ocean’s tide. Suddenly, if Leifa were to tell anyone, she wanted it to Rakyn.
“He is to see me to the Great Hendge of Rivalt. For capturing the Warhammer, I am to be knighted.”
Rakyn’s jaw hung open, but Leifa was pleased it was astonishment on his face and not dismissal. He blinked and pulled within himself, his face still blank with unsorted emotion.
“I’m sorry, I am being rude. Surely, you do deserve it. It is . . . .”
“Unheard of for a woman?” Leifa laughed. “I know, I scarce believe it myself.”
Rakyn’s eyes warmed as he glanced at her askance where she’d turned her horse unconsciously so that they could ride again side by side.
“You are not playing me false when you said they honor ability above all else.”
“No, I speak true. King Aiden stood before all and said he had read the code and it speaks of honor and great deeds, of valiant action and nobility, but no where does it say a knight must be a man, only a warrior.”
Leifa stopped there but Aiden’s words rang on in her ears. “My lady Leifa has proven herself all these things, not just in this great deed but with every battle before. For this, I King Aiden Tiare declare that lady Leifa shall be named a knight of the realm. As the Hall of Purity is beyond our reach, name where you would like to do your vigil.”
Leifa had named a site she had felt holy since she was a small girl. The massive capped stone circle had made her feel awe from the first time she had seen it at her father’s side.
Rakyn’s eyes were on her when she came back to herself. “Who will knight you?”
“The King himself.”
“Ah, well I cannot compete with that.”
It took Leifa a moment to sort out what he meant. “You? You would knight me?”
Rakyn chuckled at the disbelief on her face. “Yes, I would. Though I do not think I could supersede the offer of a king.”
She blinked rapidly. “Nor am I certain I would want you to put steel next to my neck.”
He lifted an eyebrow a fraction. “Why? You held a blade to mine and yet here I am before you unscathed.”
Leifa blushed fire. Rakyn’s laughter deepened so that Leifa found herself offering a few husky breaths as well.
When he had caught his breath, Rakyn asked her, “When will this even take place?”
“It was supposed to begin tonight, but now it will be when we meet up.”
“I’m the delay?” Rakyn looked chagrined. “I apologize. I would not have called you here if I had known.”
“How could you have? It is fine. The idea of it is honor enough for me.”
“No you deserve to have it in truth.” The resolve of his tone surprised her. Rakyn shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. “No, now you’ve told me where you headed and where to find the King.”
Leifa checked her horse, paling. She had. There was no taking back the words. Rakyn looked almost as aggrieved as her.
“So we won’t go now. There will be time after the battles, or later. It doesn’t matter. The promise is enough. You’ll see. If I made it through the war, when we win, there will be the time then.”
Rakyn reached over and pushed down her hands. The reins loosened so that her horse stopped backing. She blinked away tears, surprised to realize how much she had wanted knighthood. She had never dreamt of it before.
Rakyn kept his hand over hers, their eyes meshed. “I do not mean you any ill will, Liefa.”
She shook her head, backing her horse a step so that his hand slid from hers. “I did this to myself. You are not at fault, my lord. Why,” Leifa cleared her throat. “Why do you fight for King Dafoss?”
“Because when word first came of the rebellion and of the battle of Greynif’s field, I was sitting at the King’s table, eating the King’s food, drinking his favorite wine, and toasting his favorite jest.”
“You cannot tell me you claim to have no choice.”
“Not that day, in a room full of great lords sworn to him, not with the doors barred by his personal guard. He took up a great sword and swung it over the head’s of his guests, saying ‘I killed Prince Rogreth and Princess Efflyn. I have rooted out traitors in the past. If any here do not swear they are with me today, I will take their life as well.’”
“Did any not swear?”
“Every soul bent their knee and kissed that blade.” He watched her a moment. “You still do not believe me?”
“Oh, I do not doubt that you swore then and there for the love of your life and any who accompanied you. But do you mean me to believe that you would have ought done differently had you been home in your castle and the summons came?
“No, my lord Rakyn, that is what I do not believe. We know we won none of the great lords to our cause. Not when their lands and titles belong to a King we mean to kill. We may get your men in trickles and spurts, we may bleed your armies dry, but the lords will not come.”
“But if you win, then the titles still mean nothing. Lands will go to the victor and for today, that is a coin tossed in a squall.”
Leifa tilted up her chin and regarded him. Rakyn said nothing for a moment, but ran his fingers through his hair. He paused with one hand against the back of his skull. His gaze was on the hill again.
“Your guardian is there again.”
Leifa looked round. Surrey’s mount stood with neck bent to the ground sniffing at the high grass. The gathering storm mixed with Surrey’s iron grey cloak so that its wind blown edges were lost to the overcast sky. He appeared as if he wore the clouds themselves on his shoulders.
Rakyn stiffened his jaw. “It is time, I suppose. We’d best go speak to him.”
It had been a quiet night, which seemed too easy after the win and afternoon. Leifa was known for accomplishing the impossible, which is what had won her a motley group of soldiers to command. Perhaps her luck had truly risen and no longer flickered with the candle glow she had nourished for years.
She didn’t change her routine. She feared laxness, especially now so close to a victory that would win her Lord praise beyond measure. She had never failed him, but she doubted that he expected this. It was early morning, just before sunrise when the dew was thickening on leaves. The air was cool and moist, kind compared to the heat of the ride the day before. Woodsmoke stirred the scent of duff and pine under the trees.
Tommas was on guard, one of the sentries posted along the route they had travelled the day before. He looked round at her soft step, the tight worry easing when he saw her over his shoulder. His smile seemed wider than could fit on his narrow face. It stretched from one prominent ear to the other, nearly touching his sandy brown hair.
“Morning, Tom. How long you been out here?”
“Oh, I spelled Shemp before moon set. It was a little early for my watch, but I couldn’t sleep. I figured a couple more hours would do the old man good.”
“Just remember to watch out for yourself too, Tom. If you’re too tired, you won’t make it to Shemp’s age.” He looked serious at her words. She left him to think for a moment. “All’s been quiet?”
“Yah, Sir Kempton walked a wide perimeter through a few times and didn’t see nothin. Figure we got away clean?”
“I figure nothing until we are back in camp and have another thousand swords around us.”
She left him there and found Sir Kempton who confirmed Tom’s story. It unravelled a few more nerves. She knew Lord Rakyn had to be riding her down and riding hard. She had done her best to cover their tracks. Her band was only twenty men. Twenty men bringing back the Warhammer. Leifa shook her head.
She had split up the three pieces in the dark of morning and then split her men. It had been five groups, some alone, the largest comprised of only four, who had slipped away from Lord Raykin’s sleeping camp three mornings before. When all five groups had rejoined over a day later, Leifa had not known what to think for a moment. She had never anticipated such success.
Now the camp awakened around her. Her men knew what today would bring. Fighters she had never seen in a clean tunic strutted in shinning armor while smoothing down the coats of well brushed horses. It made her think the early stop the day before had been a good idea rather than a silly risk when pursuit was so obviously behind them. It had to be. But her band would do her Lord proud before the King, with looks as well as treasure.
Jenddric stood with arms crossed before the Warhammer. The glint of pink dawn traced the ridges of the incised filigree that decorated the dull silver metal. The cupped basket was higher than a man sitting a horse. It was held aloft by an arm of dark wood, ancient and strong as stone it had been the piece that Leifa had escorted in the journey from Lord Raykin’s camp. Now it fit between the metal sleeve of the basket and that of the base. Coiled metal snuck down from the a band on the arm to a plate in the wide platform of the base.
The entire contraption towered over Jenddric looking like a strange catapult mated with a jewelers folly. Leifa regretted asking him to piece the thing together. Kempten read the thought on her face.
“It is lighter than it looks.”
“Yes, but how will we move it? We’d need a team of draft horses to drag it.”
“I’m having Jory bring up the wheels off the ox cart. This close to camp we can leave it behind. Nought but a few supplies left as we used it to carry the basket.”
Leifa nodded slowly. The ox cart had been a scavenge brought by one of the groups. It made an easier way to bring the basket to the Warhammer, where they had hid it under a pile of hay.
“You think the axles will support the weight?”
“Just give me an hour and she’ll be ready to go, Commander.”
Leifa nodded. She trusted Jenddric and his ability more than her own perception of the Warhammer. It would take an hour for the camp to finish packing up. There was still time.
They met the first scouts after only a two hour ride in the morning. Leifa asked for an escort and relief for the scouts she’d had riding behind her group and she got it. The thought of what the request would bring to camp, that she had returned with something of value made her smile. Especially after Lord Fendel and Lord Tyrin’s forces had returned with nothing.
For all her informality when she spoke to Rakyn, in Surrey’s presence she did not forget his titles. “Lord Steffen Darkblade, may I present Lord Rakyn of the Bay.”
“Well met.” Steffen had watched them ride up the hill as he sat his horse motionless.
Rakyn lowered his head and gaze. “Well met, my lord. It is an honor.”
“Is it?” The corner of Surrey’s mouth twitched in a smile.
“If half the legends are true, very much so.”
They measured each other with looks. Leifa waited out the verbal game, sensing that what was at play was beyond her now.
“What is it that brings you to request my commander’s time when we are at war? You could have made your argument with sword far more easily than by parley.”
“And crushed myself against your army after she had beaten me to its folds? I think not.” Rakyn raised an eyebrow to highlight his incredulity.
“Then have you said what you needed?”
“No, there is more I need to say to you, since you are here.”
Surrey watched him a moment. “Say your piece.”
“You know King Dafoss has put a price on Leifa’s head for having stolen the Warhammer?”
“Aye on yours as well, I hear, if you don’t return with it and hers.”
Rakyn frowned. Leifa found herself holding her breath. She let it out slowly. Surrey’s eyes flickered her way. He knew, she found herself thinking. He had known during the ride to meet Rakyn and had said nothing. But it had been why he’d watched like a worried father from the hill, uncaring it had put him within bow shot of Rakyn’s men.
“Yes, it is a deplorable situation I find myself in. As I am rather certain you won’t give me back the Warhammer?”
“We will not. We’ve grown rather fond of it as well as Leifa.”
“Yes, I wasn’t going to ask for her head. I’ve found the thought of her death is actually rather distasteful for me.”
Surrey said nothing, his green and gold gaze reflecting no thoughts. Rakyn took a deep breath.
“So that leaves me this. I beg your leave to let me join you.”
The air escaped Leifa’s lungs in a rush. Surrey had guessed the right of it then, though she had not believed the thought possible. Rakyn to switch sides and no longer be her enemy. The thought sent her heart galloping. Surrey’s eyes flicked to her. She relaxed her back and sat her horse before her elation sent him skittish.
“We are not opposed to the thought. Would welcome you mostly.”
“But that I’ve fought against you since the war began and you do not trust me so easily?”
“There is that.” A smile tugged Surrey’s lips again. “But you have a solution.”
Rakyn gave the ghost of a smile. “I do. Two things in fact. The first is this.”
He pulled a slender rod of metal from his knee high riding boot. Leifa recognized the dull grey metal before seeing the filagree.
“It is part of the Warhammer.” She had no doubt.
“Yes,” Rakyn agreed with a glance to her. “It was really in four parts, the basket, the arm, the base, and the pin that keeps it together. You can try other metals or wood, but I think you’ll find nothing will work as well as this, or last.”
Surrey’s lips were tight, twisting with distaste. “You will bribe your way into our favor?”
“No, it is a gift of good faith.” Rakyn turned and held it out to Leifa. She reached for it automatically, recalling who she was with with her hand an inch from the shaft. Her widened eyes darted toward Surrey.
“She has brought you the rest. It is for her to give you the final piece as well.” Rakyn’s gaze rested on Surrey as well.
Surrey nodded, a curt downward motion. Rakyn’s cloudy green gaze held her fast as her fingers folded over the metal. The piece was over a foot and a half long, heavy but not awkwardly so. Still, Leifa did not keep it. She reached out with it to Surrey. Happy when he took it from her.
“My and my King’s thanks.” Surrey stashed it away, tucking it into his belt. “And the other?”
“A compromise. I think we are both in agreement that the time of picking off small forces is done. It is coming down to open battle, but your most successful field commander is a novice in this.”
“Allow me to co-command with Leifa. Combine our men fifty-fifty and have us man the field together. I will teach her the field tactics she needs and you will have her keeping an eye on me.”
Both of Surrey’s brows were raised, but there was a glimmer of interest in his eyes. “Sixty-forty.”
Rakyn scowled. “I care not for the numbers. Choose what you wish. You must see my point.”
A quiet laugh escaped Surrey’s lips at Rakyn’s annoyance. “I do. It is well thought out.” Surrey looked a length at Leifa, making her want to fidget. She tried to keep her face blank. But her heart had raced over a waterfall and was now swirling in the pit of her stomach.
“Your men will not be forced over. They may choose to come or leave to rejoin King Dafoss.”
“And I cannot guarantee you retention of holdings you have rights to now.”
“As long as my father is alive, they are his. I am content with my name and ability to earn worthy lands through King Aiden’s favor.’
Surrey paused again, his gaze studying every detail of Rakyn’s expression as if he looked to see if mocked. To Leifa, Rakyn looked more the earnest young knight he must have been before the war’s beginning. Certainly serious, but less heavy than he had as they rode that morning.
“I think he is sincere, my lord.”
“And you find his proposal acceptable? You could fight alongside him rather than against?”
A smile curved her lips. “Yes, I will be able to adapt, my lord”
“Very well, Lord Rakyn, we accept.”
Surrey held out his hand. Rakyn blinked a moment, relieved surprise dancing across his face before he reached out and took Surrey’s hand.
“Now we’d best tell the men before the rain opens up.”
Leifa grinned at Rakyn and put her heels to her horse.
Surrey sought him out just before first watch was relieved. Rakyn got to his feet as befit Surrey’s status as his commander as Leifa’s guardsman let Surrey in. With Rakyn’s force joined to Leifa’s, Surrey had taken over their combined talents. Surrey had said it was due to where they’d be fighting, no longer outskirts and running attacks, but Rakyn wondered if it was also because Surrey knew he’d have a hard time listening to someone as young as the minor lordling Allyander. He would have tried, but it would have been difficult. He was not Leifa.
“I don’t mean to interrupt your sleep.”
“No my lord, I hadn’t yet retired. I was trying to think of all this affected. I made some letters I was going to give you to review in the morning. Cousins and minor lordlings of my father’s holdings that I think could be swayed to join us.”
Surrey raised his brows. “Very good. I think you will bring far more to our cause than we’d even guessed.”
“There was something you wanted to speak about, though?”
“Yes, two things actually. The first is along the lines of your letters.” Surrey picked up the upper one and skimmed through it. Rakyn waived him a chair and took the one across from it.
“You are betrothed to Lady Seline of Far Reach?”
Rakyn shifted in his chair. The verb tense pricked at his skin.
“Yes, that was arranged four years ago by our fathers. You wish me to keep it?”
“Yes. She is the only heir to Far Reach and I think they may be persuaded to follow you to joining us.”
Rakyn scratched the stubble on his chin. “They will not be inclined to keep the engagement to a landless knight.”
“Hah, no,” Surrey tossed him a look from the corner of his eye. “This will go a ways to ensuring you keep the lands your family has claim to now.”
“Assuming you win them from my father.”
“Yes, of course there is that matter. Far Reach’s ships and men will go a ways towards helping with that.”
Rakyn had nothing to say to that. It was true, every hated word. The strategy was plain.
“The other thing?” Rakyn asked on Surrey’s heels. Surrey’s lips twitched, the candle light glinted in his eyes.
“You will keep your relationship with Leifa to that of co-commanders. You will not touch her.”
The muscle across his jaw tightened, but Rakyn fought to keep his face fair, raising a brow. He felt like his dinner had turned to lead. “I know you don’t trouble yourself at my expense.”
“No, dammit. I don’t care what came before. But I will not having you bedding her while we are at war. You said it yourself, she is our most successful field commander. Bed whoever else you like, but I will not have her sidelined with a pregnancy. That is understood?”
Rakyn breathed in, understanding settling like a cloak over his shoulders. “Yes,” he said as he exhaled. It wasn’t a slight against him, but protection of Leifa. A more subtle strategy that he hadn’t thought out. He looked at Surrey with more respect.
The two demands fit hand in hand. Or could.
“If Far Reach doesn’t follow me to your side?”
“Then you’ll be free of the engagement, of course.”
“And I want a promise that you won’t barter me off in an attempt to procure more men and swords.”
“Huh, agreed,” Surrey chuckled. Rakyn opened his mouth to concur, but the words stuck. He closed his lips and looked away.
“I’ll be able to choose whom I wish then, if Far Reach’s alliance is lost?”
Surrey watched him with his gilded green eyes. His face was serious where so often it wore the trace of amusement. It made Rakyn feel like he could read through to his every thought as they said Leifa could when they had battled.
“I hadn’t heard you’d had an interest beyond your father’s choosing.”
“I hadn’t . . . until recently.”
Surrey tilted his head up as he breathed in, his eyes never left Rakyn. “I see. Your feelings aside, I’m not sure if you’d thought through what sort of wife she’d make. If you expect her to become a fine lady to serve you mead and sing songs of praise, I don’t think you’d be happy.”
Rakyn didn’t flinch. He knew that. He hadn’t considered it, but he realized the thought was not alien to him. “It does not matter if Far Reach agrees to keep the engagement and joins us.”
The smile was back at the corner of Surrey’s lips. “You agree then? To both.”
“Yes, I agree to both.”
They shook hands over it before Surrey left. Alone, Rakyn turned back to his letters but weariness pulled at his arms. It seemed one difficult situation led only to knew ones. But as he turned down his covers, his heart was not as heavy as it had been that morning. Perhaps then, there was some hope.
Aiden summoned Rakyn while the enlarged band of soldiers settled into the greater force surrounding the Great Hendge. As he, Leifa, and Surrey had ridden in the forefront of the group, Rakyn had time to pitch his pavilion, ensure his men were being accommodated with their new comrades, and then prepared himself for the request he was certain would arrive sooner than later. No King would wait long to deal with a newly joined Lord who brought with him over three hundred armed men, fifty of them knights.
What did surprise Rakyn was that the cloth hall pitched a stone’s throw from the King’s pavilion was nearly empty. He walked its length of pillowing silks and shifting shadows with only Aiden and Surrey’s eye on him. It was worse than walking the feasting hall of Castle Tine to answer to his father.
Aiden sat on a plain wooden chair elevated from those around it by a small platform. Though he sat alert, Aiden shifted to his left side where he rested his chin in his hand, elbow on the wooden armrest. It was a casual pose, thoughtful. Rakyn had expected a gathering of force to witness his swearing to his new King, a show of the might to remind him to respect where he stood and to whom he pledged his allegiance. The emptiness left him unnerved and he found his eyes drifting to the sword at Aiden’s side.
Rakyn did the only thing he could do. He pulled out his own sword and knelt, laying it at Aiden’s feet.
“It is true then.”
“Yes, your grace. I swear to serve you and fight for your crown. I am yours to command as it pleases you.”
There was silence for a moment. “Rise, Lord Rakyn.” Aiden’s eyes were a truer and deeper blue than the sky. They rested on him below the thin circlet of gold he wore. Rakyn would have averted his gaze, but found he could not. Though Aiden wore fine clothes, they would have been remarked as plain at court. The circlet befitted a prince more than one styled a King. But Aiden’s eyes left no doubt. He was royal.
“I do believe you mean it.”
“I do, your grace.”
The smallest smile touched the corner of Aiden’s mouth. “Than I do except, and gladly. Surrey tells me you already bring much with you to our table.”
For once, Rakyn’s thoughts were not clear. “Three hundred men, fifty knights have sworn to follow me to your cause.”
“Aye, and the fourth piece of the Warhammer, letters to holdings you are close to, and continuing the match with Far Reach.”
“There is no guarantee they will keep faith with me.”
“No, but there is reason to believe they will.” Aiden nodded toward Surrey.
“I sent word to Aiden the night you joined us.”
“Of course.” Rakyn would have been surprised if Surrey had not.
“How many of your men did not come with you?”
“Eleven, your grace.”
“Yes, even without that word would have gotten out soon of your change of allegiance. I sent a letter to Far Reach ahead of the rumors with an offer of protection and the continuation of the engagement if they joined us as well.”
Rakyn moistened his lips. “And? Your grace.”
Aiden smiled a bit more broadly at the near lack of formality. “Nothing definite. They want to meet on neutral ground at Balin’s Keep to discuss the matter.” Aiden paused, watching Rakyn a moment.
“I want you to go and meet with them. Surrey will escort you and speak for me.” Rakyn nodded.
“When is this?”
“Sooner is better. I don’t want word of the meeting to get out for the good of either party. You’ll leave from here. I have one more task for Leifa as it is, before I would mesh your forces.”
Rakyn shifted his weight, trying not to frown.
“You have something to say, say it.”
“I would at least stay for her knighting, by your leave.”
Aiden snorted, his eyes glancing to Surrey for a second. “Yes of course. She has asked that you be her witness at her vigil tomorrow night. If you are willing.”
“Yes, of course. I would be honored.”
Aiden smile was warmth laced with a glimmer of sadness to his eyes. “You were right, Surrey.”
“I told you he would not refuse.”
“Then it is settled. We feast tonight. I want you there, of course. Tomorrow night is Leifa’s vigil and I will knight her at dawn the following morning. After that, you will head to Balin’s Keep.”
It happened as Aiden said. He was welcomed that night to a feast where he passed meat and mead to those who had been his enemy only the week before. Aiden welcomed him before all, and Rakyn knelt again.
“Arise,” Aiden had said. “Arise as a brother, you who knelt as a foe.”
And so it had been though for some it seemed it would take longer to win their belief than others. It did not matter, for Leifa was among those who supported him.
The next night as he watched her kneel amid the grass and stones of the Great Hendge, he found he could not look away. The simple undyed shift made her look a young girl lost amid the night blooming flowers. The moon had painted the shift in starlight. Dawn had come too soon.
Leifa had walked barefoot through the grass to kneel before Aiden. When he drew his sword at the first sign of the sun, the blade had caught the light like it was forged of the heart of a star. It left a streak of light as it danced from Leifa’s shoulders.
Then Aiden had reached down and taken Leifa’s hand. “Rise, Sir Knight of the Bright Meadow, Lady Leifa.”
Cheers of Lady Leifa came from those who watched. Leifa had been right, a few of those were indeed women. Amidst the joy felt congratulations to Leifa, Rakyn had not noticed when Surrey slipped to his side.
“We leave in an hour. Say your words to her and get ready.” Rakyn wondered why every happiness had a hint of bitterness.
There were only thirty men to see them to Balin’s Keep. All proven fighters with good families or of known noble deeds. It was a worthy escort.
Surrey rode at his side at the height of the column. Though Rakyn wanted to brood on the coming negotiation, he found Surrey’s company an easy distraction.
“I think you have no concerns,” Rakyn said with a chuckle when Surrey laughed at the near loss at the battle of Stonemear’s Bridge.
“Well, I have been killed once already. It is hard to fear that which you’ve already been through.”
“Yes, well few of us can say they’ve shared that experience.”
“True, and I don’t recommend it. Being slain by your best friend does ruin ones day.”
Rakyn chuckled again. “And you hold him no ill will? For stabbing you, much less with your announced death removing your from titles and home?”
Surrey’s smile was more sweet than bitter, but Rakyn could see the tiniest line of dislike. “At first, yes. But I was young and found after I’d healed that he’d given me a greater gift than I’d ever sought or could repay.”
“And what was that?”
“The freedom to choose who I was and where I wanted to be.”
Rakyn’s eyes darted away. He thought surely something had torn inside of him, the sudden pain was so violent.
“Let’s not judge what is to come until we hear from Lord Urndel himself. You make me feel like I’m leading you to your death.”
Rakyn laughed, a sudden cut of sound. “Well, lets hope it suits me as well as it did you.”
Surrey looked at him in astonishment for a moment, before he tilted back his head and howled.
There was much to settle, and for the first three days it was nice to have Lady Seline tending to his needs in the quiet way she had. Her voice was the soft sigh of a wind flute. With eyes the color of myrtle, hair of rosy sable, and skin that felt like brushed silk the few times their hands had touched, he found her company far from unpleasant. The smell of sunlight and flowers drifted in her wake and he found his eyes lingering on her until she was out of sight.
Rakyn had only seen her once before, back when the match had been made. Seline had been a young girl then, and he a new made knight. There had been little between them other than awkward recitations of promised fealty. Now the match was to be made with iron, though Seline clothed the promise of men, knights, and weapons with a sweet mantle.
Lord Urndel was pleased as was his lady wife, Katyl. Please with him and the notoriety he had won in the field, pleased with his looks and manners, pleased with how he watched their daughter and spoke to her kindly. Their only worry was if Aiden didn’t win or if they sent away all their forces, King Dafoss would attack them for turning.
Far Reach was large and wealthy, though not as wealthy as the Bay. Missives were sent from both Surrey and Urndel. Lords, men, and land were bartered until Aiden stood to gain the whole of the Midlands down to Eyrrn’s Sea. And that was not counting the small lords and men who had responded to Rakyn’s letters. Half of the Bay would swear him lord and Aiden King. With the other Lords that had sworn to Aiden, it gave him over a third the kingdom. Only the last of the great lords would stand against them, though Rakyn guessed even some of them or their sons would change sides yet. Maybe their daughters. The thought reminded him of Leifa and made Rakyn grin.
Leifa’s knighting was one of the few topics he and Seline did not agree on. As they spoke over the small banquets each night, Seline had been fair minded. But when rumor reached of Leifa, she had turned up her nose.
“It isn’t correct. A woman has no right to fight.”
“She is as apt as a man.” Seline had looked stormy at that. But she had smoothed down her gown with taught fingers.
“I beg your pardon, my lord. I know you often have faced her in battle. But I cannot stomach the disgrace of it. For a woman to wield a sword and lead fighters? She must be very desperate or her family too poor and ill mannered to see the lack of sense in it.”
Rakyn had been about to tell Seline that he was to command with Leifa. Instead, he sipped from his wine glass.
Seline’s attention turned to a singer that entered the hall. She asked for a ballad of a knight and lady, true love won. It was given her while Rakyn sat and listened to words he knew by heart and suddenly found too sweet and simple. Seline’s laughter was too high, too easily awarded. Rakyn told himself he was tired and retired early, leaving the hall he felt Surrey’s gaze but did not turn back.
The fourth day decided it. Contracts were drawn up that afternoon, but the signing was put off till morning. Still, it was done and Rakyn knew it. He would marry Seline at the war’s end, which the contract would help win. With her would come all the holdings and minor lords sworn to Far Reach and others besides. With one move, they were gaining enough men and arms, all trained and many seasoned, that Aiden’s army would triple in size. He would be able to match any of the great lords in the field and still be able to fight a move ahead elsewhere.
Rakyn expected Surrey when he got to his chambers. The delay in signing smacked of his worry or guilt. But when he arrived, it was not Lord Steffen who stood next to a tray of wine. For a moment in the dim light, he thought it was Seline before the young woman turned and smiled.
“Allysha, isn’t it? What are you doing here?”
She was one of Seline’s lady’s, a younger and distant cousin. Pretty but without the finer features that Seline carried so well.
Allysha smiled coyly, glancing away at the last second. “My lady sent me here at her request.”
Allysha took a few steps forward, blushing lightly. Rakyn wondered what game his betrothed was taking. He walked forward amused, expecting a letter or a token of her promise.
Instead, Allysha put a hand on his chest, stopping a finger’s breadth from him. He could feel the heat of her, the smell of roses. It was only then he noticed that the laces of her gown were loosened. There was the smell of honeyed wine on Allysha’s lips.
“What is this?” Rakyn’s eyes darted toward the doors. Allysha put a hand on his cheek to bring his mind back to her.
“My lady wants to know what sort of man she is to marry. She wants to know what you are . . . like.”
Allysha’s glance told him exactly what sort of like Seline was curious about. Rakyn blinked twice.
“And she sent you to find out?”
“Yes . . . in her place as it were, until you are wed.”
Rakyn slipped his hands around Allysha’s small waist. She leaned into him willingly, tilting her lips toward his. It was an easy thing to kiss her. Her lips parted against his, she was so eager. Rakyn let his lips linger on Allysha’s full mouth before he stepped back. She swayed and had to catch herself, expecting his arms and body closer than he was. Her eyes widened.
“There, you can tell my lady how I kiss. The rest she will learn when we wed.”
Allysha was blushing scarlet when he opened the door for her. He wasn’t sure if Seline would think it a slight to have her maid sent away, but at least he wasn’t worried her father would hear of it. Rakyn shut the door happy to see the empty room.
He picked up one of the glasses of wine Allysha had brought and drained it without thinking. He had been tempted, admittedly. Allysha was lovely and had a willingness that showed she was not shy with bedroom matters. But under the cream boddice had been a dress of dark green. Almost the same color Leifa had worn.
It had been enough to cool any fever he had felt for Seline or the girl. Instead, he paced his room watching the moon fall and wondered what task Leifa had been sent on.
Surrey found him in the morning, knocking lightly so that Rakyn won’t have heard if he’d been abed.
“I expected to see you last night,” Rakyn said by way of greeting as he opened the door. Rakyn was dressed smartly, a bit more formal than he had for the days of negotiation. His doublet was half the azure blue and half black of his house, a diving hawk across the front. The rest was black, trousers, belt, and boots, but of finest quality with accents of silver and gold.
Surrey’s gaze paused on Rakyn’s garb but he made no comment of it. Instead, his eyes swept around the room, stopping on the unmade bed.
“I had, but there was someone here ahead of me waiting for you. I thought her visit would be the more enjoyable of the two and left.”
“Hah, yes it seemed that Lady Seline had a bit of a betrothal gift in mind.” Rakyn ran his fingers across the orb of his eyes. In his tiredness and with what the day dawning promised, he did not feel like holding back information from Surrey.
“That was her maid . . . ?”
“Yes, Allysha. I’m not sure if the gift was for me or Seline. Not to worry, I sent the maid off with only a kiss.”
“I was not going to question what you did in your own chambers with a willing woman.” Surrey brows were drawn, but Rakyn could not tell if it were from confusion or concern.
“Willing, perhaps, but I’m not one to play games to satisfy a woman’s curiosity. I have better things to accomplish then to be pawned about.”
A bird sing through the sudden tense silence between them. Rakyn sighed and rubbed his eyes again.
“I apologize, my Lord. I did not much sleep last night.” Rakyn glanced over toward a weary looking Surrey. “Truly, I was referring to a woman’s pawn. Her game was childish and hopefully she learned from it.”
“No, it is why I am here this morning. We had best speak of this. I would know your mind before I pawn you off, as it were.”
Rakyn walked away, pouring himself a glass of water and holding a second out to Surrey. He shook his head slightly.
“You would really walk away from this if I were to say no?”
Rakyn gritted his teeth, looking out to the misty world awakening beyond the windows of the keep. He turned suddenly toward Surrey.
“Tell me, can we win without the men this match would bring?”
Surrey took a long breath in. “Yes, though not as quickly. But we will win in the end one way or the other. I will not force you to do this. It is to be your choice.”
Rakyn frowned, looking down to the goblet in his hand.
“I choose to end it.”
Surrey let out a breath. He set down his goblet and moved crisply toward the window in a quick pace. “Aiden will understand. Not to worry. I will make amends to . . . .”
“No, I mean to end the war.”
Rakyn’s calm tone and manner froze Surrey in his tracks as much as the spoken words. Rakyn looked away first, finding his eyes full of moisture.
“I’ve watched too many friends die in battle. Or worse, after screaming in pain with the smell of rot on their body, limbs and flesh hacked.” He paused and swallowed bile. “I don’t want this to continue. Ending it sooner . . . if I have a choice that is it. I do not wish to watch those I care about die.”
“And will you will live with that, after the war is done and when you are wed?”
Rakyn tilted his chin up, expelling a laugh on a lungful of air. “Marrying Lady Seline is hardly the worst punishment. She is a nice enough lass.”
Surrey’s level gaze was on him, piercing through Rakyn’s consciousness until he added with a dry throat, “And as for the other . . . I’m starting to wonder what I know of love. If I felt so much for Leifa, why then was it so easy to find Seline comely and a viable possibility until her folly last night? Perhaps my children will be friends with Leifa’s and will fight tourney’s together. I know nothing of love or marriage, but I know a great deal of war. If my groom price brings a quarter of the kingdom and enough men and arms to win it, I would call it acceptable.”
Surrey gave a soft exhale and shake of his head. “You are a very good man, Lord Rakyn. And I am very happy to have you on our side.”
Surrey’s grin made him seem a boy. It lightened Rakyn’s mood as well. He laughed without the weight the night had settled on him.
“Tell me though, if you do ever change your mind.”
“Why, are you hiding some clause to end it if I do?”
“Oh, I could only wish it were so simple. But no, alas, I simply wish to know. I cannot search for solutions if I do not know there are problems.”
“Even if there are few solutions?”
“Few enough, but lets hope it doesn’t come to that.”
The deed was done after a light breakfast. Seline was more sedate with the morning and Rakyn found her change of mood suited him. He was polite and respectful, which eased the tensness of her face. But something of the romance of the situation had gone out of him. He was kind and gave her the deference due her, no more. It was clear to him now. Rakyn was there truly to speak to her father and negotiate terms. The deal was more than business. It was life or death for many people captured in the words. Rakyn studied the phrases with far more attention than he had when distracted by slender Seline.
There were few changes and final copies were made before lunch had passed. For a wedding agreement, the participants were sober enough. Seline was pale again and hovered near her mother. Urndel hesitated with quill over the paperwork. He swallowed once before firming his jaw and signing to treason against King Dafoss. Rakyn did not pause, but signed each copy with a clear hand and flowing lines. After, the men shook hands and made ready to depart the keep in haste.
Urndel had fighters to assemble and send before a fortnight was passed or the contract was void. Rakyn and Surrey had to join up again with the army to win the land that Rakyn was titled to hold. Rakyn never even noticed when his betrothed left the room, his mind was so tied to the fights yet needed to be won.
Rakyn remembered his manners better when they were in the courtyard. It swirled with the men at arms of both participants, readying and mounting for the ride out. He escorted Lady Seline to her carriage, helping even a flushed Allysha up as well.
“I will wait for word of your every win, my Lord.”
Seline held out a scrap of fabric nearly the lavender blue of her eyes. Rakyn took the favor without the gallant flourish he may have when he was merely a tourney knight. Before he became a commander and seen real battle, before he had agreed to marry her because it would win a war. He saw the hope in her eyes for the attention though, a tale told of love and honor like the song she had asked for in the hall. He didn’t think the singer had mentioned the lady sending her maid to be bedded by the knight nor did it mention the dirt and blood of battle.
“Thank you, my Lady. I will send word as I can. Safe journey home to you.” Turning from his betrothed, he face Lord Urndel.
“My lord, I will look for your men before the moon turns. I assure you our first task will be to block the pass from the north to Far Reach and place men along the roads to guard the borders.”
Urndel nodded. “Yes, thank you. Lords Camphel and Adolphis are already waiting us at Far Reach. You will see them before the moon reaches full, I think. Now that the deed is done, it is best to end this as quickly as possible.”
With that, Urndel took to his horse. The carriage turned and Rakyn was left with a quickly glimpse of wide eyes in a pale face before he turned to mount his war horse.
The thoughts of what use that many more men and knights could be put to kept Rakyn in a quick minded distraction for the first few hours of the ride. Surrey and Leifa had given him enough information on forces that he could map out their placement in his head. He wanted to return with options to discuss with Aiden or Surrey or whoever he was told to report to. They had to plan on holding and buffering the land written over to them in the rolled parchment Surrey carried. Plus they needed to push forward. If they could hold the center and separate the south from King Dafoss in the North, there was the chance they could get the southern lords to turn as well.
It took Rakyn until the shadows lengthened to notice Surrey’s quiet. It was an uneasy thing, casting a gloom over Surrey that was unusual for a man who often had a laugh hovering behind his eyes.
“By the bright sword, man. This is sitting better on me than you, I think. Why are you looking like the man at the losing end of the wedding contract?”
Surrey ran his left hand through his hair. “Because I find it a poor way to repay you having joined us. At every turn you’ve brought us more than we could have expected and we, by turns, give you away to wed a girl not of your choosing.”
Rakyn snorted and shook his head. “I told you, it was my choice. Maybe I am choosing soldiers over the girl, but she is not a poor maid. I am satisfied with what has been worked out. Aren’t you?”
“I’d sell myself into marriage, to anyone except my sister, if it would win this war faster.”
Rakyn glanced over at him. “And why not her? You are not that fond of your sister?”
“Hah, that is hardly the reason. She is along the lines of Leifa and likely to put an arrow or dirk into anyone she doesn’t find acceptable.”
Rakyn laughed easily. “I could see that being a problem if we are trying to win an alliance. Perhaps you could wed her to an enemy instead.”
Surrey chuckled, some of the tension draining from him. They rode in silence again. Rakyn watched the rolling fields to either side of them. This place had not been a battlefield and for the time, it was pleasant to ride in the high summer afternoon. If things went well, the war would not have to come here.
“You do not need to serve with Leifa, if you like. I trust you after this.”
Rakyn let his horse walk a few paces in silence before he glanced over to Surrey’s sincere gaze. “No, she needs to training. With more men to field, you will need every commander you can find. Give us a few battles together and she will be the better for it.”
Surrey nodded and looked away. The thought of Leifa still gave Rakyn a tremor of unease. But he wanted to fight not only on the same side with her but beside her for a time. He knew the bargain made at Balin’s Keep as well as the promise he had made to Surrey on the eve of his change of sides. He hoped that one would help keep the other.
“Tell me, my lord,” Rakyn began suddenly dry mouthed. “After your death freed you, did you really go to the folk under the mountain and learn to sword smith?”
Surrey’s level gaze barely touched him before flicking back to the road. “Aye, what of it?”
“Was it difficult, to learn the art . . . to be down there in the dark?”
Something in Surrey’s face hardened and just as quickly softened with a sigh. “Yes and no. There was good and bad. I didn’t realize how difficult it was until I left and came back. Now even though there was laughter and kindness, I remember so much of that period as a dark blur. I did what had to be done, lost my way for a time, and came back to the light.” Rakyn nodded once, his eyes lost to the road ahead. “Why do you ask?”
“I . . . wondered when I saw Aiden’s sword when he knighted Leifa. And because you said that your death freed you. But really, there was darkness after the light and before you returned to duty. Indeed, you just said you did something difficult because there was a need to it. I think we are not so different in the end.”
Surrey was silent, his thoughts hidden by his profile. Finally, he looked over at the man who rode beside him. “Aiden’s was not the only sword I made. I offered, when I returned, to make him a hundred so that every man we fielded held such a sword. But he said he needed me more as a commander. He asked me for only one more, which he bid me keep. Would you see it?”
Surrey slipped his blade from its sheath and handed it across to Rakyn. Where Aiden’s sword was gleamed though it had been forged in dark depths, Surrey’s was a dark blade that he had forged in free air. It was so light Rakyn would have thought he held a stick but for the slice of it through the air. His hand tingled to hold it so that when he handed it back to Surrey, it shook slightly.
“With a blade like that, I would think you more careful on who you handed it to.”
Surrey gave a half smile. “There are runes folded into the metal so that it could not harm me if you tried. But I trusted you with it nonetheless.”
An eyebrow danced up Rakyn’s brow. Surrey watched him closely a moment, a slow smile skimming across his face.
Surrey shook his head to Rakyn’s query. “Come, there is far to go before we can stop for tonight.”