Jenna was not happy. She had spent much of the afternoon crouched in a streambed on a cold, forested hillside, making sure that the camp she was watching was the one that Roth, Lord Westfahler’s third son, had ordered her to go out and find. The water that flowed down the gully was run-off from the first snows in the mountains above, and although she was standing on a boulder, her rabbit skin boots had absorbed first the chill and then the dampness, and she had to struggle not to shiver. The only redeeming point of the day was that she was sure that she had discovered the cattle thieves’ camp. It was her sixteenth birthday, normally a cause for some celebration, but spending it shivering in the cold like this was not what she considered “fun”.
It seemed that moons waxed and waned before twilight closed in enough for Jenna to make her move away from the camp. It was not with the grace and stealth that she would have liked — her knees and calves felt barely mobile after bells of supporting her cold body — but she managed to totter off into the trees without any alarm being raised. Finding her way back to the keep was another matter. It was fully dark by the time she exited the forest, and it was rare that she was able to make out any landmarks, but as night neared its sixth bell the keep came into sight, its torches clearly marking her goal.
She arrived at the gates to an exclamation of concern from Devlyn, who was on watch. The other scouts had returned well before the evening meal, and were now enjoying a night in the shelter of the keep’s barracks. Jenna was too cold to sleep right now though, and she had information to pass on to her captain, so she made her way through the keep to the family quarters at the rear.
The chafe of her woollen breeches seemed loud in the hushed corridors of the watchful keep. When she reached Roth’s door though, she shattered that peace by hammering on the metal latch with the tang of her dagger, quickly sheathing it before stepping inside. The bearded, heavyset man who sat blinking on the bed was obviously having a hard time bringing himself to full wakefulness — a fact which almost brought a wholly inappropriate smile to Jenna’s face.
“For Cahleyna’s sake, Jenna, what do you want at this hour?” he groaned, still trying to rub some life into his eyes.
“Sir, forgive me for waking you, but I believe I have found the cattle raiders’ campsite. I knew that, given the urgency you placed on this task, you would want to hear about this as soon as possible.”
Roth groaned and flopped back on the bed. “And you want me to thank you for this?”
Jenna continued, only slightly annoyed by his comment. “They have a camp in the hills about ten leagues to the east of here. I counted four raiders during my time watching, though there may be more that I didn’t see. There are eight horses, which partly confirms that. They are on a hillside surrounded by forest, which looks to me like a decent defensive position, and one with a couple of good ways out. They also spoke with Comarri accents, which makes me almost certain I was watching the right people.
Roth cocked his head in her direction. “And is there anything which couldn’t have waited until tomorrow?”
“You were the one that sent us out on a three day scouting trip to look for these people. Bearing in mind that they probably won’t be there for long, I thought you might like to know now,” Jenna replied, defensively. “For what it’s worth, I think we should attack close to midnight tomorrow, round up a couple of trappers or hunters from the village to help our numbers. If we only carry light armour, the men will still be fresh for a fight after their journey. There’s a stream toward the lower part of the camp, and if we drive them downhill, anyone who tries to run is likely to miss it in the dark and end up falling in there. Have the villagers and two of the guards waiting nearby to capture them, and you should have an easy victory.”
The contemptuous expression on Roth’s face was enough to make Jenna stiffen, offended before he even opened his mouth. “What would you know of tactics, girl?” She felt her blood rise. “Have you never heard of the Westfahler Claw? My grandfather designed that attack, and it has been used to great success in almost any battle that my family has been involved in since he came to power.”
She couldn’t help herself. Her dislike of Roth overcame any sense she may have had when dealing with the nobility. “Aye, *almost* is right. And what happened the last time you were left in charge of the guard while your father was away? You tried it against the Beinison. My brothers found the wisdom in that tactic then. You can ask them about it. They’re under a cairn next’ my father’s farm!”
Roth stared at her, now dangerously awake. “I’ll forgive that slight for now, but not forever, cur. Just because the Beinison had magic on their side does not make my attack any less valid now. Half of the men attack from below, the other half from above. We catch them at dawn while they’re still asleep in their tents, and before they have a chance to get up.”
Jenna grimaced. “Oh, and they’ll still be asleep at dawn at this time of year? If these are cattle raiders, some of them will know cattle. Which means they would be awake to attend them well before then. To …”
“What did you say?” Roth bawled at her. “Do you think that a peasant like yourself can outsmart your betters? Do you think that I know nothing of battle?”
She thought of telling him her true opinion, but reined in her temper. It would probably be in her interests to choose her words carefully before replying. “I would never presume to *say* such a thing, Captain. I am simply pointing out that …”
“Oh, so you think it, do you?” Jenna’s silence spoke volumes. “When I want your advice, conscript, I’ll ask for it. Until then, if you want to pick a fight, pick one with a squire, like you did to get conscripted in the first place. ‘Cause I’m more than a match for you. Get out.”
She pursed her lips, considering one last parting arrow, then resigned herself to her position. She turned and left.
Jenna was rudely awakened slightly after dawn when Barros and Tristyn, two of her barracks mates, tried to wrap her up in her own blankets. The surprise was spoiled by Barros giggling as he crept up on her, and they gave up quickly when her foot caught Barros’ hard in the stomach.
When they had their breath back, and had stopped laughing, they settled down to ask her what she had found. Jenna decided that they weren’t about to play any more tricks, so she told them what she could of the camp, its occupants and the surrounding terrain. She went on to tell them of her discussion with Roth, and the plan of attack that he had decided on. “He’s cracked.”
Barros laughed loudly, his permanent grin even wider than normal. “And you think we didn’t know that, Jenna?” Tristyn kept his usual quiet counsel.
She rolled her eyes, nodding. “Listen,” she went on, more quietly. “If they have any guards posted and Roth wants to attack in a pincer movement from above and below, we’ll be heard as soon as we start to move. The ground around the camp is rock and thin soil, so if we take horses, they’re going to slip everywhere. Besides, there are too many trees to make a downhill attack worthwhile. We’d lose people, horses or both getting through there, and if anyone makes the camp in one piece, they’re going to be too unbalanced to be useful.”
Barros considered this and nodded. “Fair enough. And I take it you have a better idea?”
Jenna considered a moment. “Well yes, as it happens, I do. The camp itself is on a relatively flat spot on the hillside …”
The blare of a trumpet broke her musing. “Tell us later,” said Barros, before heading out with Tristyn to attend the summons. Jenna hurriedly pulled on her breeches and overshirt, then grabbed her tabard as she headed out to the centre of the courtyard, where the guard were congregating. Roth was waiting for them, pacing unconcernedly. Jenna saw that she was going to be last to arrive, so she picked up her pace to join her fellows. With all twelve assembled, Roth turned to address them.
“Men,” he began, deliberately excluding Jenna. “Tonight, we attack the cattle raiders’ camp. I want to put an end to any ideas they may have that they can get away with stealing our cattle. As I’m sure you all know by now, Jenna found their camp yesterday. She says that there are four bandits, which means that two of you can stay here and guard the keep, and I’ll lead the rest in a surprise attack on their camp.” Jenna shuffled uneasily at this. “Jenna, you get to stay on guard here with Devlyn — we couldn’t have our prize scout getting injured now, could we?” A gasp of disbelief escaped her lips. She knew Roth didn’t like her, but his current idea verged on lunacy. She was the only one who knew exactly where the camp was, the lay of the land, and the only one who could give a rough idea of the bandit hierarchy.
“Captain Roth,” she said, trying to get his attention.
“Enough, Jenna. You’ve had a long night, and we wouldn’t want to wear you out with talking.”
“But Sir …”
“I said that’s enough, Jenna.” He turned angrily to face her. “Anything more out of you and I’ll have you scrubbing the privies of every keep in the demesne. Straight?”
Jenna frowned and kept silent, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring at Roth. He just stared back, probably looking on this as a small start to her punishment for her words of the previous night. He started speaking again before breaking eye contact.
“As I was saying, Jenna is staying here. I wouldn’t want our youngest guard put in any danger. And after her efforts last night, she would be worn out by the time we arrived. And she’s still so very young, wouldn’t you agree?” The rest of the guard looked almost as ill at ease as Jenna felt. She glowered at Barros, who looked apologetic. Tristyn just chewed his lip nervously as Roth looked around the assembled guard. “Devlyn will stay with her, since he already has the night guard on the keep. The rest of you, make sure your swords are sharp and that you can still use them. We leave at noon.” That said, he strode off into the keep, leaving the guard to their own thoughts.
Barros made his way over to her, with Tristyn following close behind him. “Jenna … do you think this is as bad an idea as I do?” he queried.
She let out a quick bark of laughter before replying. “It’s cracked. I’m the only one that knows the exact location of the camp, I’ve seen the land around it in the light of day, and know when to slow the approach. I think he’s wrong about their numbers. I saw four yesterday, but there were tents and horses for more than that. I don’t think he knows what he’s getting himself into.” A number of other guards had overheard, and nodded in glum agreement. Jenna sighed, then looked up at her audience, one man in particular.
“Riddaen,” she asked him. “You’re the closest thing to a lieutenant that Roth’s got at the moment.” Riddaen contemplated this and nodded. “He’s determined that a pincer movement is the best way to take this camp. It’s not. If they decide to break and run, a pincer attack will balk them. We waste our strength dealing with those who don’t want to fight rather than tackling those who do.”
Riddaen blinked awhile, and nodded. “Sounds reasonable. Go on.”
“Well, Roth wants to attack from the trees, above and below the campsite. They will have much less time to run if he does that, and you’ll be coming in either unbalanced from the trees upslope, or slowly from the lower end, and in both cases the ground is going to be slippery. If you want to do a pincer attack, it has to be from the sides. You’ll be going across turf rather than rock, which means you can use your horses to your advantage. Make sure the fastest of you are toward the uphill side of the flat, and they’ll be driven down toward the stream when they try to run.”
She was stopped in her tracks as Riddaen burst out laughing; a barb which cut Jenna deep. She felt gutted. “If you don’t want to hear me, Riddaen, you can just say so.” She struggled not to cry as the man whom she knew and respected sat back against a wall, brushing tears of mirth from his eyes.
“I’m sorry Jenna, it’s just that you sound so much like the captain that I fought under against the Beinison.” This wasn’t what she expected to hear. “He was killed when his horse fell on him during battle — just bad luck — but his advice kept the rest of us alive. I think that’s one of the things that I liked most about him: he didn’t just give us orders, he gave us reasons. We knew why we were fighting that way. It gave us confidence, and when a fighter thinks he’s going to win, he fights better.” He paused a moment as another fit of giggles overtook him. “I’m sorry you’re not going to be with us tonight, Jenna. You’ve a head on your shoulders.”
“Well, thanks, I think.”
“Yeah. And given the fact that most women’s ‘battle tactics’ extend to gouging your eyes out while trying to bite lumps out of you …” He burst out laughing again, echoed by the rest of the guard.
“Aye, well maybe you’ll know to pay the ladies next time,” she retorted, starting to laugh herself, and to the continued amusement of her fellows.
“Yeah, well I don’t think I’ll be seeing your mother again,” he said with a smile, “But seriously, where did a farmer’s daughter like you get a head for battle?”
She paused to think a moment, getting serious again. “I don’t know. I know what I’d do in a given situation, and I know what I’d do when faced with my response. Working from there, I can figure out someone’s reaction to an attack, and decide what gives the best advantage. I think it’s common sense than tactics.”
Jenna spent the next morning single-mindedly sharpening her sword, almost to the point where she could have sewn with it. It kept her from worrying about her colleagues’ fate from the attack the previous night. It was almost noon when she received a call from the watchtower that Tristyn was coming. She ran out to meet him, her sword still in her hand.
She was out of the gate before he had even reached the village, passing Devlyn at speed as he jogged out as well. If Tristyn was alone, then it was likely that the raid had gone amiss. As she closed the distance to him, she noted that his right hand was caked in blood from a deep gash in his forearm, and the side of his tabard was similarly covered. She halted temporarily as Devlyn caught up. “Devlyn, get your wife to meet us at the keep. And bring her herbs and bandages.” He looked like he was about to say something, then nodded and ran back into the village. “What happened?” she opened as she approached Tristyn.
Tristyn looked at her. “It was Roth.” His voice was cracked and faint, and he wheezed as he breathed. “He decided we should attack from top and bottom. I don’t know how many they had, but there were at least eight of them to the ten of us. They must have heard us long before, because they were ready to fight. Riddaen tried to reason Roth into using your ideas, but he mentioned your name and Roth deafened himself to any further comments. Said there was nothing that would make him hold court to the ideas of some ill-bred peasant girl when it came to battle.”
“What of the others?” she asked, putting his good arm around her shoulder and helping him keep a straight line back to the keep.
“From what I know, six are dead or captured for sure. Barros is gone. We rode in from upslope. I was felled by a branch on the way. Their sentry gave a shout as soon as we started to ride, and they came piling out of the tents, armed and ready. Barros must have been one of the first into the camp, and he was dead by the time I was back on my feet.” Tristyn sobbed, once. “I always told him not to ride so fast.” At this, he broke down, leaning into her and causing her to stagger. They made the rest of the walk in silence as Jenna fumed at Roth’s ineptitude.
Devlyn’s wife came running up behind as they entered the keep, and helped to guide Tristyn onto the bench inside the main gate. Tristyn had composed himself somewhat by this time, and was able to direct her ministrations while Devlyn came in, breathless, and bearing a sackcloth roll of herbs and leaves. Jenna gave him a quick rundown of what had happened as she watched his wife work, reopening and cleaning Tristyn’s wound, then binding some iechyd leaf and beth root directly onto it.
When the doctoring was finished, Jenna continued her questioning. “What happened to the others?”
Tristyn sighed heavily before replying. “I don’t know. We attacked at dawn — a pincer movement from top and bottom. Supposedly. There was no easy way to signal without alerting the raiders, so it ended up being a lopsided attack. Those from the top arrived first, and they were ready for us.”
Jenna nodded in resignation. She had known something like this might happen. At least Tristyn was sounding better for having sat down, or maybe for the healer’s ministrations.
“There were at least eight of them,” Tristyn continued. “We didn’t have a chance, staggered and unbalanced as we were. I ran in after Barros. Killed the first man I met, the second caught my sword on his and the third slashed my arm when I attacked again. I can’t move my fingers.” He looked at his hand as his fingers flexed slightly.
“You might want to rest that for a while,” said Devlyn’s wife. “You won’t be lifting a sword for a while, no how.”
Tristyn nodded and thanked her, then turned his attention back to Jenna. With movement in his hand once again, he was looking much brighter, if not exactly happy. “Someone from the other group hit them as they were about to kill me. I don’t know who it was or what happened to them, because I got up and ran. I looked round when I reached the forest, saw Roth’s horse downed and him unarmed and looking confused as two people went for him, then Riddaen falling while trying to reach him.” He paused in remembrance of his lost friend. “I think Roth might be the only one left alive. I didn’t see anyone else, but I didn’t wait around to look. Nehru didn’t appear to be with us at the time, despite our prayers.”
Jenna bowed her head onto his knee, and kept a stony silence as she thought of her companions, her friends, and what she could do to avenge them. There were now two fit guards available: Devlyn and her. There were two hunters who could be rounded up from the village, and two or three farmers’ sons who would probably fight if asked. “Do you know how many raiders were killed?” she asked, leaving her head on his knee.
“At least two. No more than four.” Jenna continued her mental calculations. They could muster a force which would be close to the raiders’ in size, but by the sounds of things, not in experience. The hunters could improve those odds with a couple of well placed arrows. They could count on two, maybe three, being incapacitated before they had to get in close. That’s when numbers would have to count over experience.
There was never any question in her mind as to whether there would be a second attack.
Two more of the guard had made it out of the fight alive. They turned up at different times during the day, neither in particularly good health. One had a rough gash across his chest and four cracked ribs — this through leather armour. The other had taken a nasty blow to the head, but swore he would be able to fight when the time came. That was another body to add to their tally. She had Devlyn round up the hunters from the village as she went to get help from some of the surrounding farms. She came back with three farmboys, all close to her own age. Her main worry was making sure they got back alive.
With three bells to go before darkness, they set out for the raiders’ camp: three guards, two hunters, and three farmboys. She gave them their orders as they walked. The farmboys were happy to be led, the guards and hunters less so, but they ceded to her when she bluntly asked if they had any better ideas. Once there, the hunters and one of the farmboys would go upslope — carefully. This would give them a better vantage point for bowshot. The other farmboys would go downslope with the remaining guards, and were not to fight unless attacked. They were to split up and make as much noise as possible on their way toward the camp when the fighting started, staying by a guard or hunter at all times. It was all that Jenna could do to ensure their safety.
It was not long after dark when they neared the camp. This evening though, it was a clear, cold night, and Jenna had no problem finding the streambed and following it to the camp, along with Kierann Brooke, the more proficient of the two hunters. As they approached, Jenna slowed their progress to listen for any signs of activity ahead. Her fears were realised when they got within sight of the camp, and found it gone. Her face soured as she mentally chastised herself for not being faster, though in truth she had expected this. “Hope you’re as good a tracker as you pretend to be,” was her only comment to Kierann on the matter.
Jenna left him to scout for a recent trail while she went back to collect the rest of her makeshift regiment. When they arrived back at the campsite, it was to find Kierann sitting at a small fire. He pointed toward the bushes at the back of the campsite. “Bodies are over there. Six dead, which means we are still a guard short. Looks like something has been lunching on a couple already, by the way. They’re a bit of a mess. No sign of Roth, which means he’s probably been taken with them.”
Jenna’s head bowed a moment in respect for her dead comrades, and she swore a silent oath of revenge on the responsible party. “Which way did they go?”
“Not sure. I figured that we’d be spending the night here, so I got a fire started.”
“Go and take a look now. We need to move tonight.” She went to catch up with the others who had gone to see the bodies.
Devlyn intercepted her as she approached. “It’s not something you need to see, Jenna. Leave it be. I’ll see that they’re given a decent burial.”
Jenna looked at him, dry-eyed. The anger burned cold within her. “These are my friends, Devlyn. I want to pay my respects personally. I buried three of my brothers off a cartload of bodies thanks to the Beinison, so I know what death looks like.” Devlyn sighed and let her pass.
The bodies were laid out side by side, eyes held shut with pebbles, and arms crossed over the chest, hands to the throat in reverence to the Stevene. Whoever had placed them here had done it respectfully, at least. She looked at each one individually, committing them to heart and memory as best she could, so she would know the reason for her quest. Barros. Riddaen. Justin. Arreth. Keither. Lunisk. All friends. All dead.
Finally, she lifted her head, looking at the others nearby. “Gather stones. We need to give them some protection until we get back.” She looked around at them. “We leave tonight.”
When they were on the move again, Devlyn took Jenna by the arm and urged her to fall back from the rest of the group. “Are you sure this is a good idea, Jenna?” he asked, once they were out of earshot. She gave him a cold stare. “I mean, we don’t know what we’re getting into. There’s no telling how far they got, or what condition we’ll be in by the time we catch up to them.”
“We still have about seven bells of night left. I don’t think they went too far today; they had to travel by daylight, and they wouldn’t want to attract any attention. Remember, they probably have Roth with them, had wounded in their midst, and maybe one of the keep guards as well. They were likely up for half the night wondering when the attack would come, which means that they won’t be in the best of fighting conditions by the time we reach them. I sent Kierann on ahead to make sure we know when we’re close to their camp, and we can see what condition we’re in then. We either take them there and then, or ambush them further down the trail.
“I don’t intend going into this blind, Devlyn, but if we don’t catch them tonight, we never will. They’re on horse, we’re on foot, and we must be getting close to Comarr. If they reach home ground, we lose any position of supremacy that we might have over them. And we can’t afford to give them any more advantage than they already have.” She looked at him for support. “Straight?” He just nodded. “Right. Let’s get back to the group,” she said, before increasing her pace to get to the head of the line. She saw Devlyn get a few nervous glances as he returned, but he just nodded in reassurance, saying nothing.
With maybe three bells to go before morning, their scout returned. “They’re camped on a hillside up ahead. They’ve got two guards posted, and it’s not the kind of place that I’d like to attack.”
“Show me,” Jenna replied. “The rest of you, stay here.” The group sat down with a good number of tired groans, which Jenna noted silently. Kierann led her towards the bandit camp, slowing their progress further and further as they neared the edge of cover. He indicated that she should come closer, then moved a bush slightly so that she could see.
The camp had two large tents set up, and two cold looking sentries sat shivering outside. Apart from a small fire which the sentries had made, there was no light or indication of wakefulness. Their camp was beside a stream near the bottom of a hillside depression, with little cover on the peaty ground above. Trees avoided the banks of the stream, indicating that it became a torrent in the spring melt. The trickle that ran over the rocks right now, though, would barely be enough to cover the noise of falling straw, never mind a tired regiment of makeshift soldiers. She grimaced slightly, and motioned that it was time to go. She ended up having to hit Kierann to get his attention off a wolf which stared back at him from the far side of the camp. He reluctantly made his way back with her.
Two of the group were sleeping by the time they arrived back, and Devlyn looked at her apologetically. He shrugged and nodded toward his sleeping companions. She nodded, nudged them with her foot, and whispered “Come on guys. Up. We need to move.” They groaned, and got to their feet. “We can’t attack the camp just yet. The risk is too high. We need to circle round them and find a good place for an ambush. There’s no reason for them not to stick to the trail from here on, so that’s where we’re heading. Hold on to anything which might make a noise as you walk and muffle it.” She motioned to Kierann. “Lead on.”
Jenna came awake at a nudge from the hunter whom she had left to watch the camp. By the angle of the sun which shone down through the trees, she guessed it to be around second bell. “That’s it,” he said. “They’re packing up camp. Better get everyone up and ready now, because I don’t think it’ll be long before they arrive.” Jenna sat up, already fully awake. Gods, but she felt alive. Thoughts of the coming battle raced through her mind, with choices to be made and reactions to be judged. Her thoughts held no court to nerves. This was the feeling that made living worthwhile.
“Thanks, friend,” she said, smiling up at him, and seeing the dark circles beneath his eyes. “Here,” she said, passing her blanket. “Try to get a bit of rest. I’ll see that everyone knows what they’re doing, and wake you in half a bell.” He nodded, and lay down in her place. She wished him luck in getting any sleep, and went down to take another look at the ground that she had chosen.
She had decided on a patch of ground where the path narrowed and cut across the side of a forested hill. There was good cover on the upslope side of the path, and the elevation would also allow them, quite literally, to get the jump on their enemies.
With the aid of Kierann, Jenna ensured that her party were camouflaged as well as possible, and that they all knew what they were doing. She sent Kierann back to wake his friend before settling in, with Kierann at the head of the line and herself at the other end. She hoped for a short wait before her targets appeared, and she was not disappointed. It was bare moments after Kierann checked their cover and settled in that they heard the first sounds of movement from down the trail.
Jenna had to force herself to keep breathing. Her instincts told her to hold her breath, but that would mean gulping air when she most needed quiet, so she fought her instincts, breathed, and listened. She heard the sound of the horses approach, but most of the noise on this morning came from the quiver of the blood which ran like ice through her veins.
As it was, when the troop passed in front of them, in single file, she couldn’t help but hold her breath, knowing that she had to wait for the lead rider to pass Kierann before she could act. She kept her head down as the group passed below her, and it seemed that an age passed before a gurgling cry from the lead rider’s pierced throat signaled an end to the peace that lay on the forest.
Jenna scrambled to the edge of the path to see a startled man fighting to control a panicked horse in front of her. She gave him no chance to do so before an instinctive stab from her sword caught him in the side of the head, causing him to fall. The rider behind, at the tail of the procession, was in better control, working his mount with one hand while reaching for his sword with the other. Jenna made an instant decision, and jumped toward him.
His blade cleared the scabbard, but that was not her main concern. The horse’s mouth was foaming, its eyes wide in its panic. She felt her face mimic the horse’s wild expression as she kicked out, her foot connecting with the horse’s face before she landed: hard, and face down in the dirt. The horse reared and wheeled, dismounting its rider, who landed on his back in front of her. Without rising, she chopped down with her sword, catching him in the gut. He squealed, reaching to stem the leakage of blood and intestine from the hole she had made. She hurriedly rolled aside, parrying air as she struggled to get up and defend herself.
But the fight was over. Only two of the Comarri had gone unchallenged in the initial attack, and the rest had been downed before they had had the chance to draw their weapons. Much of the damage had been done by the horses, who had thrown both Roth and one of the Comarri before stampeding, trampling numerous bodies on their way.
She had the pleasure of seeing Roth grind his face into the ground as he tried to stand, his arms bound behind him. She walked stiffly over to meet him. “Jenna, I …” he began as she approached. She grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around to cut the bonds on his wrists. “Thank you,” he smiled, rubbing at the rope marks on his arms. The grin was wiped from his face as she dealt him a clubbing roundhouse to the cheek, which landed him squarely on his backside.
“You killed my friends, lordling.”
“Bring her,” came the order. Jenna was marched into the lord’s presence, her hands tied, her legs chained and weighted. A gentle hand on the shoulder guided her into position in the audience chamber, before a foot in the back of her knee made a show of forcing her to kneel. She glowered up at the dais in front of her defiantly, showing no sign of fear at the various fates which might await her.
“I’m told that you were responsible for the deaths of six of my guard two sennights back. According to Roth, you gave false report of both the numbers and location of the raiders, and thereby got half of my men here killed.”
Jenna quivered with rage at the accusation levelled at her. “I gave only advice on location and possible numbers. I was allowed no say on the attack itself, and if he had listened when I attempted to tell him exactly what the situation was, they might be here with us now. I tried to say my piece on your son’s tactics at the time, but was silenced. Tristyn and Devlyn can confirm this.” They nodded as she glanced their way. “I was allowed no say, and no part, in the initial attack. That’s the only reason that I was able to effect a rescue when I did,” she added, quietly.
She glared as the lord looked at her awhile. His expression darkened as he mulled over her words “And those that were with you can confirm this?” he asked, looking to Tristyn and Devlyn for confirmation.
“Aye, lord, she has it right,” said Devlyn, slow and proud, sparing a glance for Roth as he spoke. “Those that were in the yard that day can confirm the truth of her information, and those that fought with us can confirm any details on your son’s rescue. Except maybe Kierann Brooke, who hasn’t been seen these last few days. His wife may be able to confirm some events though.”
“As for planting your son in the dust, that charge I admit freely,” Jenna interjected, grimly. Sir Westfahler’s attention swung back toward her. “If you’re looking to blame someone for the deaths of your guard, that’s who you should look to.”
The lord was silent a while, obviously trying to control his well renowned foul temper. Roth, who had been standing nervously to the left while the trial proceeded, leaned to utter something in his father’s ear.
At this, Sir Westfahler’s pent up anger vented itself, and without even looking at his son, he slammed his fist backhanded into Roth’s face. Jenna did her best to remain impassive as Roth yelped in pain, blood flowing copiously from his nose and pouring darkly onto the oaken floor. Sir Westfahler jumped up from his chair and grabbed Roth by the shoulders, slamming him into the wall. “You are left in charge for two short months and by the time I return seven — fully half — of my guard are dead and the rest injured? I have a farmer’s son acting as keep guard, that bloodthirsty shivaree Brooke has gone missing, and the only one left around here with her head in place is stuck in chains? Get out of my sight!” he yelled, before pitching Roth dow n the steps. Roth tried to blurt something out, but one look from his father had him fleeing the room, leaving a trail of bloody splashmarks behind him. Jenna directed her stare to the lord once again, unable to suppress a slight grin.
“And what in Kisil-Doon do I do with you?” he cried at her as he paced. She chose to remain quiet. “I can’t easily bring you back into my guard — or what’s left of it. I can’t very well kill you now, and yes, I was thinking about it. You’re serving as a punishment, so I can’t dismiss you. You pose me a problem.” Jenna sat silent as he considered, and started to worry as he glanced up, seemingly struck by sudden inspiration. “If I remember rightly, your excuse when I conscripted you for fighting with that squire was that you were in a hurry to get back out of the cold. You like warmer weather, then?”
The question, and its conversational tone, took her by surprise. “Well, yes sir.”
“Hah! Just the answer I was hoping for. You enjoy the sunshine, the warm breeze on your face,” a strange smile sat astride his features. Jenna had no need to reply. “Tell me Jenna, have you ever visited Dargon?”
“No sir, of course not.” Why would she have been there? It was about as far away as it was possible to go in this kingdom, and a cold and dismal place.
“Well I think it’s about time you did. I hear that Clifton could do with a hand,” he quipped, with a cruel grin on his face. “Approach the dais, once you have your irons struck,” he continued.
Moments later, she tottered toward him. “Kneel,” he said when she was close enough. She felt the weight of his eyes on her head as she knelt on the dais, then he leaned toward her and whispered, “As for what happened with my son, I don’t know whether to thank you or thump you, so I’ll take the noble retreat and promote you to sergeant.” He considered a moment, “With my thanks. But I must still punish you for your insolence and affront to my son. From the tales I hear, the sun never shines in Dargon, and the only warm breezes come from too much of the dark ale.” Jenna grimaced, keeping her thoughts to herself as he continued, even more quietly.
“The truth of what happened goes no further. There are many powerful men in Dargon who count themselves my friends, and if I ever hear of you saying anything against my family, I’m sure I can find somewhere much less pleasant for you.” He leaned back in his chair and was quiet awhile. Jenna kept her head bowed until he continued.
“Now go, sergeant,” he said, for all to hear. “Sleep in a clean bed for a while and enjoy your new rank. You have a long ride ahead of you. In the meantime, I’m going to have to go educate my son,” he finished, getting to his feet.
For the first time, Jenna almost felt pity for the privileged fool.