They climbed a tall mound to enter the castle. Daine was impressed by the thickness of the walls around the outer court and by the alert and well-armed guardsmen. The baron of Pirate’s Swoop kept his home in fighting order.
A man in gold-trimmed brown ran up to Thayet, bowing repeatedly as he talked to her. The queen signaled Buri, and the second-in-command turned in her saddle. “Riders, this way!” She and Sarge led the trainees to long, low buildings along the wall: stables, by the look of one, and the guard barracks.
Onua came up beside Daine. “Wait here. I want them to stable their mounts so they can unload the cart.” She grinned. “A bit of advice, for what it’s worth. Never do anything you can order a recruit to do for you.”
Daine grinned. “I’ll remember that.” Movement caught her eye: a flag was being run up on one of the three towers. When the breeze caught it, she grinned: it was a gold lioness rampant on a red field, the same as Alanna’s shield. On the tower next to it was a brown flag decorated with a gold key.
“The baron’s flag,” Onua said, noticing the direction of her gaze. “Those flags mean the baron and the lady knight are both in residence.”
“No flag for the queen?” she asked.
Onua shuddered. “Gods, no! Its bad enough the whole palace knows where the summer training camp is, without crying it from the towers. George has made this place strong, but why ask for trouble if you don’t need it?”
Grooms took Thayet’s and Alanna’s mounts as the women stretched. Suddenly shrieks filled the air. It took Daine a moment to realize the sound was not birds but children screaming, “Mama, Mama!” A pack of them dashed through the inner courts gate and separated: three to Alanna, two to the queen. Thayet’s pair—both dark haired, a boy and a girl—bowed when they were a foot away from their mother, then threw themselves at her.
“The prince is nine, the princess eight,” Onua explained. “They asked to watch the training this year instead of staying with the younger children in the summer palace.”
Alanna’s three—the tallest a true redhead, the younger two blondes with a touch of red in their locks—didn’t even stop to bow. She laughed and knelt to return their hugs, disappearing for a moment under their bodies.
“You’d think they’d been brought up in a barn, wouldn’t you?” a lilting voice asked nearby. “Climbin’ on their ma like she was a hobbyhorse.’ Daine looked down from her seat on the wagon. The speaker was a tall, broad-shouldered man with brown hair lightened by the sun. His nose was too big for good looks, but there was a wicked twinkle in his large, green hazel eyes, and his grin was catching. He wore a shirt and breeches, and had come from watching the sea, to judge from his tousled hair and the spyglass in his hand.
She had to return his smile. “They must love her very much.”
“She’s easy to love,” he replied.
“For you, maybe,” Onua said, dismounting. “I know threescore offenders against the king’s law who don’t find her at all lovable. Hello, Baron.”
“Onua, every time I see you, gods be my witness, you make me wish I wasn’t married.” They hugged vigorously, slapping each other on the back.
“You’d never pull in my harness, George. Daine, this gentleman—”
“Don’t call me ‘gentleman.’ I work for a livin’,” he interrupted. Daine grinned. Sarge often said the same thing.
“This noble man is Baron George of Pirates Swoop. George, this is Daine, my assistant”
A large hand was offered. Daine shook it. Like all the nobles she’d met in this strange country, his palm was callused. “Welcome to Pirates Swoop, Mistress Daine. How did you fall into such bad company?”
She blushed, not knowing how to take this charming man.
“Stop flirting with her, George—you’ll only break her heart,’ Onua winked at Daine, who winked back, thankful for the rescue. “How long have the prince and the princess been here?”
“A week only,” the baron replied, taking his sharp eyes off Daine.
In a quieter tone, Onua asked, “Any trouble?” George’s eyes flicked to Daine. “You can trust her,” the K’mir assured him. “We all do.”
Daine blushed again when George raised his eyebrows. “That’s quite a recommendation, young lady. I didn’t think Onua even liked two-leggers.” Looking around, he said, “Bless me—so you did take on Evin Larse.”
Seeing them, Evin waved and loped over, his long legs taking him across the outer ward court in seconds. “George, I made it,” he said, panting as he offered his hand. “I told you I would. Wait till you hear about the trip we’ve had! Did you know you have griffins nesting up the coast?”
“I’ve got the whole village quartered here,” George said, making a face. “Eatin- our food and beggin me to send soldiers after them. Tell me true—is it really griffins, or just a pair of mean albatrosses?”
“It’s griffins, and you don’t have to send a company,” Evin assured him. “Daine here got them to make peace.”
“I didn’t ‘get’ them to do anything,” Daine retorted. With the charming baron she might be tongue-tied, but never with Evin. “They don’t do anything they don’t want to. But they promised the queen not to attack people or livestock,” she told George. “And they can’t lie, so I believe them.”
“Wait,” he ordered. “You’ve had speech with them, and made a treaty—”
“This is a fine welcome you’ve given me, laddy-buck,” Alanna said, trying to imitate her husband’s speech as she approached. She bore a gold-haired child on each hip. “Here I am, home from the wars, and you let me be swarmed over by barbarians whilst you flirt with my friends.”
“Excuse me,” George said gravely to the adults, and to the children he plucked from his wife’s hold. Gripping the Lioness firmly, he bent her back in a prolonged kiss that looked like a romantic scene in a play. Everyone, even the men-at-arms posted along the walls, clapped, whistled, and cheered.
“Does anyone in this land act like they’re supposed to?” muttered Daine.
Onua heard her question. “They do in lots of places,” she said, eyes twinkling. “But this isn’t ‘lots of places,’ it’s Pirate’s Swoop. And if you think this is strange, just wait till you’ve been here a couple of days.”
Exploring after the evening meal in the castle’s great hall, Daine got directions to the observation deck on top of the third, largest tower. Here the wall rose out of stone cliffs. Looking down, she saw rocks, a thread of beach, and heavy waves. Relaxed, she watched the sun dip itself into the ocean as a cool breeze blew across her face. She liked the Swoop, she decided. If she had to live within stone walls all her days, this would be the kind of place she’d want.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” The Lioness relaxed against the stone wall at Daine’s side. “I’m so glad to be home.”
You have a home to go to, the girl thought, and was immediately ashamed of herself. How could she begrudge the knight a place of her own? “I don’t see how you could ever leave this,” she admitted.
“I don’t, either, except I took an oath as a knight, then as champion, long before I came here. And I keep my oaths.”
They fell silent again. It’s odd to see her in a dress, Daine thought. Wearing perfume—it’s pretty, whatever it is—and pearl earbobs and silk. And yet she fits here. She sighed. I wish this were my place, she thought wistfully. I bet I could fit here too.
A distant cry fell upon her ears. She and Alanna looked north and saw a bird shape wheeling over the ocean. “Griffins,” the Lioness remarked. “It’s like a story, or a bard’s tale.”
So are lady knights, thought Daine, but she kept that to herself. “If only the griffins were all of it.”
They looked up. Only a handful of clouds were in the sky, but they knew there was a Stormwing behind one, and that more waited up and down the coast.
“My father is a scholar.” The woman’s voice was soft. “The king asked him to report on what he could learn about Stormwings. He says they live for destruction and the fear that destruction provides. They eat only the products of war, famine, and disease—the bodies of the dead. They drink only the energy of human suffering and fury. They’ve had a long fast—four hundred years’ worth, in the Divine Realms. I have the feeling they won’t be as easy to send back as they were to set free.”
“Send back?” Daine had a thought, and she didn’t like it. “If they had to be locked in the Divine Realms, maybe they were never supposed to be there. Maybe they’re our predators.”
“Surely.” She tugged one of her curls. “You speak of locking them up again as if it can be done. What if the gods don’t allow it, because the Stormwings are supposed to be here, not there?”
Alanna winced. “That’s a very cheerful thought. I wish you hadn’t come up with it. If you’re right, we have a lot of battles ahead.”
Daine slept in the stable loft, cushioned by the bodies of the castle’s many dogs and cats. At breakfast, she listened as the trainees were given a day off (except from caring for their mounts). That meant a day off for her as well, and she could use one. All her shirts needed mending, and a wash wouldn’t hurt any of her clothes.
Getting directions to the castle laundry, she returned to her loft and gathered her clothes. On the way back from the laundry, she found Selda checking the saddlebags that had been issued to each trainee for the trip south.
“Smile,” the brunette said, shoving her belongings into a pack. “I’m quitting. I’ve had enough fun in the wilderness.”
Daine glanced away. She wouldn’t miss the girl at all.
“Don’t look so pleased.” Selda folded the bags and hung them next to her tack. “One of these days you’ll be packing yourself.”
“Me? Whatever for?”
The older girl’s smile was bitter as she looked Daine over. “Are you blind? How long can they afford to keep you on, do you suppose? After that thing with the griffins, I figured it was all over for you!”
Daine felt cold. “I’ve no notion what you mean.”
“What happens if they’re in a battle and you get hurt? You think they can risk their mounts coming to your rescue? I don’t” The girl shouldered her pack as Onua came in. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you”
Onua looked at her suspiciously. “You’d best get to the wharf That boat won’t wait.”
Selda gave both of them an ironic salute, and was gone.
Onua rolled up her sleeves. “This is a surprise inspection. Let’s see how the trainees’ mounts look while they’re off relaxing. You start on that side; I’ll start here,” she ordered. “We can talk while we work. Look at everything, mind—nose to tail. What poison was she dripping in your ear?”
Daine stroked the muzzle of the first pony with a hand that shook. “She said the Riders can’t afford to keep me. She’s right, isn’t she? If animals know I’m in trouble, they will come to me. Numair himself said I couldn’t shield all my wild magic.”
“Maybe that’s so.” Onua ran a brush over Padrach’s Minchi to see if extra hair fell out after a morning grooming. “But it wasn’t the Riders that hired you. It was me. As long as I say so, you work for me, not them.”
“How can you do that?” she whispered. “You’re a Rider”
“No, I’m a civilian expert. I deal with whatever concerns horses, and that’s all. I’m no soldier.” Onua pointed at her with a brush. “You saved my life in the marsh and at the palace, when the Stormwings hit. You saved Numair—he was the first person here I knew liked me for myself. I won’t let you down.” She reached over and dabbed at a tear rolling down Daine’s cheek. Those of us that’s horse-hearted have to stick together, all right?”
Daine nodded. “But you’d tell me if I wasn’t giving satisfaction?”
Onua grinned. “If we spend more than the morning checking these mounts, I will be most unhappy. I was planning to take the afternoon off.”
Daine went to work, smiling. They had just finished when hoofbeats rang outside and a voice yelled, “Daine? They said you were in here.”
She ran outside as Numair climbed off his sweat stained gelding. “Come with me,” he ordered. “We have to find the Stormwings.”
She shaded her eyes to look up at him. “What d’you mean? Aren’t they behind their little clouds, being sneaky?”
He shook his head. “They’re gone. Vanished.”
She spent the afternoon on the observation deck with Numair and Alanna, searching as far out as she could drive her magic for any sign of the immortals. The Gifted ones applied themselves to scrying, or looking, Numair used a round crystal he carried in a pouch, Alanna a mirror with (Daine was tickled to see) roses painted on the back.
“It’s not my taste,” the knight said dryly. “This is from Thom—my oldest. A birthday gift. It’s the thought that matters.” She glanced at the back of the mirror, winced, and turned it to the reflecting side. “That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. And it makes a very good scrying tool.”
For herself, Daine sank deep into meditation, listening up and down the coast. She heard the griffin female return to the nest with food: griffin males, it seemed, helped to brood eggs. Her friends among the sea lions were prospering, as were other seals and sea lions. A number of whales had come to swim in the waters around the Swoop, but she didn’t have time to attempt to speak with them. Crossing her fingers, she hoped they’d stay close long enough for her to get a chance. Other sounds she identified as two groups—Miri called them “pods”—of dolphins.
At last she drew her senses back to the castle. “Nothing.”
Alanna grimaced. “No luck for us, either.”
“So our friends have given us the bag” The baron had joined them at some point. Seeing Daine’s puzzled look, he said, “They’ve escaped us. It’s thieves’ can’t, meanin’ a delightful trick whereby you wait for your pursuer and slip a large bag over his head to blind him.”
Daine scowled. “Well, I’m not blinded, and they aren’t there.”
George smiled at her. “I believe you.” He looked at Numair. “Is there a way to nab one of these beasties for questionin’?”
Numair frowned. “I’m not really sure. If we can kill them, I assume we can capture them…. You know, it’s moments like this that I really miss the university library.”
“We’re working on ours,” Alanna pointed out. “Maybe the king has the proper books already. And wait—what about the Golden Net?”
Numair’s face lit. “You know, with a few adjustments—”
“My lords and ladies.” A proper man in the livery of a castle servant had come up to the deck. “We dine in half an hour”
“I think I have the basic spell in a book I’ve been reading,” Alanna told Numair. “If you want to come take a look—” They followed the servant down into the tower, talking about spells and their variations.
Daine looked at the sun; it was low. “No wonder I'm hungry.”
“If you hear one of those nasties again, lets catch it,” George said.
“I don’t think we’ll get anywhere talking to one,” she pointed out.
The baron’s grin was neither warm nor friendly. “You leave that to me.” They studied the ocean together. “It’s strange how folk look at a thing. Numair sees what’s comin’ to us—he thinks of the return of old magic, magic that’s controlled by none and understood only by a few. My wife sees a threat to her kingdom. Me, I’m a commoner born and bred, tide or no. You know what I think of? Omens and portents—like the red star that blazed over us when the emperor Ozorne was crowned, seven years back.”
“Then maybe we’re lucky the Stormwings are giving us so much time to think about them before they do something really nasty,” Daine said.
George laughed. “Now there’s a practical way to look at it, and I thank you. It does no good to brood about what might come.” He offered his arm with a bow. “Let’s go to supper and drink to the confusion of our enemies.”
Numair kept her at her lessons until the midnight hour was called. She trudged back to the stable the Riders used, yawning heartily as she climbed to her loft bed. Her mind spinning with new animal groups, she kept her eyes open barely long enough to pull on her nightshirt.
She awoke to a stable cat giving birth near her ear and three children—a girl and two boys—watching her solemnly.
“I s’pose you’re fair proud of yourself?” Daine told the cat. “My wondrous book says you’re a feline, and a carnivore, and a vertebrate, and a mammal» I wish them that wrote it could smell around here right now and maybe they wouldn’t call you all those pretty names.” The girl wriggled out from between her blankets and grabbed her clothes. The feline was busy cleaning the last of the new kittens and refused to reply. “It’s too early to be paying social calls,” she told the children.
“Our mamas said you’re a mage.” That was Thayet’s daughter, Kalasin. She took after her handsome father, sharing his blue eyes and coal black hair.
Daine sat on her bed. “I’m no mage.” She grinned. “Numair calls me a magelet, but that’s just for fun. It’s too early to be answering questions.”
“Ma says you help animals.” Thom’s hair was redder than Alanna’s, and he had George’s green hazel eyes. “We brung you him. He was on the wall.”
The two older children lifted a basket and offered it to Daine. Inside lay an osprey, a fishing hawk, glaring at her over a broken leg. If the cat hadn’t been giving birth close by, she would have known about him already.
She sighed and took the basket. “It’s all right, then. You can go now.” Turning her attention to the bird, she carefully took him from the basket. “How’d you manage this, sir?”
He shrieked and slashed at her when she joggled his leg. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, gentling him with her mind. “I’ll make it better—I hope.”
She went to work, unaware that the children watched her, fascinated. Bird bone was easier than otter bone to mend: it was thinner and hollow. Better still, it wasn’t a clean break, but one of the greenstick kind, which meant the bone simply had to be fused together again.
Opening her eyes, she saw that the break was healed, the bird’s pain gone. She was dripping sweat onto him. “Sorry,” she murmured as he shook himself.
He cocked his head, looking at the mended leg. He was impressed, and intrigued by what she had done. At the moment, however, what he was most interested in was a nap.
She smiled. “Just, when you wake up, obey the rules—no hunting or teasing any other creatures in this castle. They’re all my friends too.”
The osprey understood. She settled him on a wooden rail and brought water from the stables below. Promising she’d see him later, she gathered her things again and left.
Her early visitors waited for her by the stable door. “You missed breakfast,” Prince Roald said. “We brought you some.” He handed over a napkin wrapped around sweet rolls.
“Thank you,” Daine said. “That was very kind.” She wolfed two of the rolls, knowing her manners were terrible and not caring.
“Papa gets hungry when he’s been using his Gift,” remarked the princess.
Daine wiped her mouth. “It was good of you to bring the osprey, and the food. I thank you. Now, I think you should go back to the nursery, please. Won’t the servants be missing you?”
“We’re too old for the nursery,” replied Thom, with all the dignity of his six years. “Only the twins have to stay there. They’re four.”
“Poor things. Listen—I have to bathe, and then I work for the Riders, which means I’ve no time to chat. Good-bye.”
They looked at her hopefully.
What was she supposed to say? At home she’d never spoken with a child. Parents had always kept them from her. If I ignore them, they’ll go away, she decided, and went to the baths.
When she came out, they were waiting. They trailed her to the stable, admiring the new kittens while she stowed her gear. They followed her back down to the ponies and helped as she looked after Selda’s old pair as well as Mangle and Cloud, holding brushes, pails, and rakes for her. They were still with Daine as the trainees, subdued after a morning conference with their officers, came to look after their mounts.
Thayet broke out laughing when she saw what was going on. “I’m sorry, Daine,” she said, giggling, “but it’s like ducklings. No offense, children.”
“You said we ought to learn more about the stables, Mama.” Kalasin was more outspoken than her brother. “You said if we wanted to come with you and the Riders when we’re older, wed have to take care of our gear and all.”
“Daine has to decide if you can stay, however,” the queen said.
The girl wished the children wouldn’t look at her piteously. Thayet was right—it was like ducklings. She could have shot them easier than resist those eyes. “Onua? Sarge?” she asked, hoping. They shook their heads.
“Look at it this way,” Buri said. “You’ll need help with the new extras—Jacy and Kenelm handed in resignations a little while ago. Starting tomorrow we’re taking groups outside the castle walls for days at a stretch. You won’t even have Onua then.”
Selda had been right, Daine thought, looking at Buri and the queen. They know I won’t be helpful in the field, not if the ponies obey me first.
A gentle hand rested on her shoulder—Onua’s. “Somebody does have to care for the washouts’ horses,” the K’mir whispered. “It’s real work, not just something to do because we haven’t the heart to throw you out. And you need to stay close and study with Numair, remember?”
“Once you start, no quitting,” Thayet told her children. “If you agree to help Daine, that’s what you do. It’s a responsibility. You can’t stop just because you’re tired of it.” The two coal black heads nodded seriously.
“Thom?” the Lioness asked.
I don’t think he’s old enough to bind him, Daine thought, but Thom was already promising. She recognized the expression on his face. He might be only six, but he would keep up with Roald and Kalasin or die trying.
Which means I’ll have to watch him, she thought with a sigh. Ducklings.
A week passed. It was easier to manage them than she expected. Being able to meet wild animals was a powerful attraction, one the “ducklings” did not tire of and would not risk losing. Though she incurred the wrath of all the nursery helpers but the chief one, Maude, by introducing their charges to savage beasts, she presented her friends to weasels, crows, bats, and deer. She let them watch as she worked to heal one of the dogs, who’d had a paw smashed by a passing wagon.
She was surprised to find Roald and Kalasin did help in the stable, and that only Thom’s size kept him from doing as much. She knew from her meetings with the twins that his maturity came from the possession of two appallingly lively younger siblings. Roald and Kalasin also had younger sibs, but their maturity seemed to result from what people expected Tortallan royalty to do. She was surprised, and a bit shocked, to learn that they fed and groomed their ponies at home. She had never heard of princes and princesses who had chores.
“I’ll be a page in a year,” Roald pointed out one day as they helped with the constant chore of mending tack. They had settled on the flat area in front of Daine’s stable (as she had come to think of it) as a place for such chores. “I’d have to learn then, anyway. It’s best to know as much as I can ahead of time. Papa says later the other lessons will keep me busy.”
“I’ll be a page too.” Kalasin had insisted Daine call her “Kally” as the children did. “Papa said girls can be knights, so that’s what I’ll do.”
Daine was about to ask Thom if he wanted his shield when a messenger came through the gate at full gallop. Covered with dust, the man slid from his horse as hostlers came to take it.
“Lioness,” he gasped. “Message for the Lioness.”
A servant bowed. “This way.”
Thom, the princess, and the prince watched, all looking grim. “Great,” Thom said. “She has to go away again.”
Kally sighed. “It’s like Mama in raiding season,” she told him. “We’re lucky to have mothers who fight. Our fathers must stay home and protect their people.”
“Da fights when they hit the village.” Thom was a stickler for fact.
“Papa fights if he can,” Roald tried to smile and failed.
Poor things, Daine thought. They miss their folks, coming and going all the time. At least while Ma and Grandda were alive, they were there.
“How about a run to the beach?” she asked. “The seals aren’t that far out. If we ask nice, maybe they’ll come in.”
“Maybe I should wait,” replied the redheaded boy.
“I’ll have Gimpy keep watch,” Daine wheedled. Usually the bloodhound’s name made Thom smile, but not now. “He’ll fetch us if they saddle Darkmoon.”
“I’m not a baby. I won’t cry or anything. It’s just—I keep having bad dreams anymore.” Thom looked down, biting his lip.
“Let’s go look at the seals,” Daine urged gently.
Gimpy was coming for them when the Lioness and Darkmoon passed him on the slope to the beach. The minute she stopped they knew it was serious: she wore full mail. A company of the Swoop’s guards waited by the gate, wearing combat gear. One of them carried a banner, crimson silk with a gold lioness rampant—the personal flag of the king’s champion.
The knight slid from the saddle, hanging shield and sword from the pommel before kneeling to embrace her son. Thom fought tears.
“You know Fief Mandash?” She spoke to all three. Roald and Kally liked her and didn’t look any happier than her son. “They’ve got ogres—three of them. They killed the lord and his son and have the rest of the family trapped in the keep. I have to go. We’re the closest king’s representatives.”
Thom swallowed. “Ma, ogres are buge.”
“Not buge, huge. The messenger says the male is eight feet or so. That’s not bad, and he’s the biggest.” Alanna smiled, but her eyes spoke of worry and watchfulness. “I’m taking some men, all right?” That seemed to reassure the children. “Thom, mind your father and Maude, and don’t get under people’s feet. A hug and a kiss”—she took them—“and you be good.” She tousled his hair and shook hands with Roald and Kally. “Tell your seal guests good night,” she advised. “You need to clean up before supper.”
All of them went to obey. The knight watched them pat the seals, pulling on an amethyst-stitched glove.
“Should I go with you, Lioness?” offered Daine. “If it’s immortals?”
“No, with twenty men I should be fine. What gets me angry is I told Mandash to arm his people, if he was too cheap to hire soldiers. But no, we can’t teach peasants to use weapons—what if they decide they don’t like their overlords?” She sighed. “I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. I just don’t like the timing, and I don’t like it being immortals” She took one of Daine’s hands in both of hers. Her grip was powerful. “Will you and Numair look after my family? Don’t let anything happen to them.”
Chills crept up the girl’s spine. “We won’t, Lioness.”
Alanna smiled. “Thank you.” She drew a deep breath and went to bid good-bye to the children once more.
The Lioness had been gone for two days. Daine had collapsed early into her loft bed, worn out from her evening’s lessons.
She dreamed: it was a pleasant night in her badger set. With her belly full, she listened to the kits play. She was about to go for a cool drink of water when her dreams changed. Trees and a moonlit sky tumbled around her. Boats filled with men came onto the beaches, and men crept among the trees. Speaking softly and fast, they lit fires, scorching the roosts and blinding her. Into flight she tumbled, over the roaring cold and salty place with panic in her throat. There was the light ahead, the one the forest bats had sung about, a beacon of safety. She was the greatest of the People—she could protect them when strange men broke the night rituals!
Daine gasped and sat up. “Odd’s bobs, what was that about?”
With her excellent night vision and the light of the full moon that came in the windows under the eaves, she saw that the rafters overhead were thick with bats. A good thirty of them, mixed breeds, watched her with nervous eyes. Three were hoary bats, named for the frost on their brown fur. By themselves they would not have been a surprise: they weren’t sociable bats, not like the clusters of big and little brown bats that hung with them, or the handful of pipistrelles.
“Wing-friends, what’s amiss?” she asked softly. “Come and tell me.”
Within seconds she was a bat tree, with little bodies festooned on her curls and parts of her nightshirt. All of them trembled in terror.
“Hush,” she told them. Closing her eyes, she thought of deep and even breaths, of safety in caves, of the drip and echo of water in high chambers. Slowly the bats took her calm into themselves. Small talons changed their grip, this time so flesh was not caught along with the cloth. The trembling eased and became a thin vibration. Some of the bolder ones returned to the rafters, to give her air. She sent the calm out with them, enticing more of those who clung to her to take the perches they were used to, hanging from wood. The ones left were the hoary bats and the leaders of each group.
Daine opened her eyes. “Now. Let’s hear it—one at a time.”
It was all she could do to stay calm when they described what they had seen. It was her dream: men, strangers, coming from the woods and from boats on the water, hiding under the trees. She had to clamp down on her witnesses a little to make sure of the numbers they were describing. Bats tended to count by the way they roosted: their idea of numbers was flexible, and depended on the breed of bat. Daine knew she couldn’t tell the baron or the Riders her friends had seen six quarter-colonies or whatever the total was. Not only would that not be helpful, but they would think she was crazy.
To the hoary bats, who roosted alone, the men had arrived in flocks, like deer they saw grazing at night. Moreover, each bat had come from a different part of the wood that ran along the coast. After scribbling with a stick of charcoal on her drawing pad and squinting to read her own marks, she concluded that each hoary bat had seen nearly fifty men.
The big brown bats had seen at least two colonies—sixty men or so. Most of the pipistrelles were from one place and had seen less than half of one of their colonies—almost fifty. One lone pipistrelle from the wood north of the Swoop identified another half-colony. The little brown bats had come from the east and south. Each of their sightings came to two tenth-colonies; for them that meant two hundred men, all told.
All the bats assured her their counts had not overlapped, and that she took as truth. Their concepts of numbers might be odd, but a bat’s knowledge of territory was precise to a pin.
Daine looked at the numbers, her skin tingling in shock. If the bats were right, they had seen more than five hundred strange men coming overland or by sea and landing near the cove. The bats were more familiar with the locals than those humans might have believed possible. The little animals insisted the strangers were not their humans. Moreover, the strangers all wore metal over some parts of their bodies, and all carried or wore wood tipped with metal, and bars of metal. Daine could see their faces in the bats’ minds: they were the hard faces of warriors.
Carefully, without frightening the animals, she eased into her breeches and boots. In the process she talked two of the hoary bats into staying behind. The others, the head of each colony, the lone pipistrelle and one particularly scared hoary, clung to her nightshirt and hair. They would go with her, they said.
Sarge, who ran the trainees on night watch, and Kally sat in front of the stable, talking. From the look of things, the princess had been unable to sleep. “Daine?” Sarge asked when she emerged. The girl’s blue eyes widened.
Abruptly Daine saw herself as they—as humans—must see her: small, wriggling animals swarming on her, clinging to hair and clothes. They tried their best to be clean, but a couple of them had lost control of their bowels.
I must look like a monster. Daine swallowed a lump in her throat. She hadn’t realized how much Kally’s opinion—or Sarge’s—had come to mean to her.
“I have to talk to the baron,” she whispered without looking at them.
Kally walked over hesitantly. She stopped, then reached out to touch a furry body. The little brown bat transferred his affections to her in a leap. She squeaked, then let him snuggle into her collar. “He smells you on me.” Her tiny smile trembled and held.
Sarge got up, his brown eyes kind. “Come on, girls.”
The master of the Swoop was in his study. The queen and Josua, the captain of the Swoop’s guards, were there as well, seated in comfortable chairs, while Numair stared out one of the windows.
“What’s all this?” George asked. His sharp eyes took in Daine’s riders as well as Kally’s small hanger-on. Thayet yelped when she saw Daine; Josua was on his feet, dagger half-drawn. Numair looked around, frowning.
“Please—don’t startle them.” The bats caught the surge of her own fears. She made herself take a deep breath and get under control. Don’t open your eyes, she cautioned the bats. The room was cozily lit from a human standpoint, but not from theirs. “They won’t hurt anyone.”
“It’s only bats, Mama.” Sarge’s mouth twitched: it was impossible to tell that Kally herself had been upset by them only a few minutes ago.
Thayet and Josua stared at Daine.
“It’s important, sir,” she told the baron. “I wouldn’t have brought them if it wasn’t.”
“May I?” Numair asked, pointing to the hoary bat.
The animal’s nose was already questing, having located interesting smells on the sorcerer’s clothes. Gently Daine handed him over: in one of Numair’s gigantic palms, the bat was dwarfed.
“What news have your friends brought for me?” George asked. Daine looked at his face, but saw no trace of mockery or disbelief.
Either he’s the world’s finest Player or he believes in me, she thought. “Have you a map?”
He gestured behind her. She turned and saw a table covered with sheets of parchment: on top was a map of Pirate’s Swoop. Holding down a corner of it was a box of small, colored pebbles. Consulting with her friends, she put one at each location where strangers had been seen, explaining to the adults as she worked. “All this since twilight,” she said when she finished. “We think its more’n five hundred, all told.” She looked at the picture she’d made, and blanched. The stones formed a half circle a mile away from the castle and village of Pirate’s Swoop. They had been surrounded in the dark.