No, no, no, no I can’t do it. Kel is my lady, my light, my love–and I can’t imagine a world where the people on that war front would ever have allowed her death. So let’s tell this story–she was found guilty of treason. She was sentenced to death, kneeling on that Tortallan river mud, enemy territory a stone’s throw behind her, hundreds of abandoned souls saved by her stubborn hands.
Dutiful misery was stark in the grip Wyldon used to pull her to her feet and tie her hands behind her. (He would not leave that job to a lesser man.) Rage poured off Raoul, simmering, trapped. The King’s Own protested–when they shut themselves up it was not at their commander’s order but at Kel’s quelling shake of her head.
Wyldon could protect Owen, who was his squire and his responsibility. The King’s Own had technically, roughly, been following orders. The rescued civilians were ushered toward safety with faintly awed hands. Kel, Merric, and Neal were ushered forward, too, by awed hands, but it was with their own hands bound behind them and it was not toward safety.
But the awe was there– these knights had done the impossible. They had gone into enemy territory, after monsters made of death and metal, and saved their people. They had done the impossible– they had put protecting homeless peasants above obeying their lord. Wyldon tied each of their hands behind their backs and they did not apologize. Neal raised his chin like he was challenging Wyldon to demand it of him.
But the Giantkiller fortress was flooded with children and civilians who had been written off as collateral damage. After days of hard travel, the children were no longer unnaturally clean and coiffed; they would always be scared. They would always be brave. They would not allow Kel to be the price paid for their lives.
A pretty young woman who had once stabbed a Scanran slaver to death found out where they were keeping Kel and her knights. Children threw tantrums to distract while the ex-convicts picked the locks on their doors. Tobe got the horses and kept them quiet. When they got to the main gates again, Neal ready to put them all to sleep, the guards turned around the same way they had days before and let them through.
Up in the commander’s quarters, Wyldon slept restlessly. He had told Keladry of Mindelan once that he believed the best thing that could be said of his tenure as training master was that she had been in his care. He still believed that to be true, but he had his orders. When they woke him, he would be stranded somewhere between rage and relief.
Only a handful of Haven civilians came out into the woods with Kel that night. Neal tsked about Giantkiller’s healers and worked on them all while Merric went though their stolen saddlepacks and took inventory. Fanche pulled bread, cheese, and knives out of her bulging skirts and passed them around.
Kel sat, staring at the space they would have put a fire if they had thought it was safe to light one. Neal bullied some bread into her and Merric asked, “What do we do now, Kel?”
She considered saying, “Why are you asking me?” but Kel had always been very bad at lying to herself. She looked up at the trees. Fir. Spruce. “There’s a war on,” Kel said. “No matter what they say back there, we still have a sworn duty. Or at least I do.” Her school friends were looking up at her like she held their allegiances in her callused palm. The Haven people were careful shadows, tired, certain. Tobe looked at her like he was never letting her out of his sight again. “I’m going to keep fighting.”
They took down their first Scanran raiding party the next day, finding them almost on accident. The first Haven dogs and cats skipped and sauntered into their makeshift camp the next night, curling up by the fire and dropping rabbits for the humans to clean for them.
Haven civilians and convicts began wandering in, grinning tightly, bringing stories of Giantkiller all up in arms. After the first week, once she’d figured out they might be there for good, Kel had started looking for clerks.
When Dom and most of his squad of the King’s Own walked into their camp without a single piece of official Crown livery on, Kel seized Dom by one rough, plain sleeve and dragged him to the side.
“You can’t be here,” she hissed. “Neal and Merric are as damned as I am. The refugees have nowhere safer to go, and I’m not going to keep them from a fight if they want it. But you– Raoul needs you, Dom.”
“Raoul needs us to win this war,” said Dom. “And neither of us could think of any better hands for my squad to be in than yours. If we’re going to win this, we can’t keep our best commanders in the dark.” He grinned. “Even if they’re grumpy giantesses of fugitives.”