Though he was never far from her thoughts, it always came as something of a shock when she was able to cling to a memory of one particular feature. He had become a spectre in the time since their last meeting - an almost faceless form. To have something real - something of a living, breathing man to remember - made her ache in ways she had fought hard to forget.
Stevaine snapped her eyes in the direction of her Sergeant. Alberick Leander was looking at her expectantly, waiting for command.
I... sorry...? Her face flushed and for a moment she savoured the contrast between the heat in her cheeks and the driving cold of the wind. Leander frowned at her but his expression was, for the most part, unreadable.
Your orders, Captain?
She looked around her. The company of ten were gathered close, their horses at a restless stop, impatient to leave the open moorland. She could see D Ashen s estate ahead and a little further on, the fires of the camp they would be sharing with the Finders. Night was falling fast and the temperature was dropping further. It would be an early winter this year and after over a week on the road, Stevaine looked longingly at D Ashen s manor.
We aim for Rim House, she said, then turned to the group, Lieutenant Hale?
A young woman brought her horse forwards, waiting for the Captain s order. She was a slight girl, her skin pale and hair wild. As Stevaine watched her approach, she was reminded how alien Hale looked amongst the others.
Take Messenger and ride on ahead, tell D Ashen s men we re coming and wait in the barracks for us there.
Without awaiting further instruction, Hale dismounted her own steed and stalked back to where a smaller beast was tethered, unencumbered, to the luggage cart. With the deft speed of practise, she saddled the animal and set off at a canter for the house on the horizon. The Sergeant held the rein of Hale s horse and led the animal across the moor.
Was it wise to send her alone? He asked Stevaine when they were far enough from the main group for the wind to swallow their words.
She knows D Ashen from court, she s the lightest and a good rider. She s the best to sit astride Messenger.
I know, but when she gets there, will she be safe waiting in the barracks with D Ashen s men? Kadryn s the best rider I ve seen, but she couldn t intimidate a mouse... Folk might think to take advantage.
Stevaine sighed, I didn t even consider that. She pushed her horse a little harder and the Sergeant mirrored her change in pace. It was a hollow gesture though. She cared little if Kadryn Hale fell prey to their host s retinue.
She sighed, and closed her eyes, letting her body surrender to the roll of the horse s stride as it picked its way across the heather. For all the pain her revierie had brought her, she had been enjoying it. The self-pity had been an indulgence - something she rarely allowed herself - and it was loathsome to return to a world where she had to worry about the Sergeant, their current effort and Kadryn-bloody-Hale.
When she opened her eyes the sky had faded to charcoal grey and D Ashen s manor grew before them. It was a smart, modern structure, built from brick with little thought given to the war which ravaged the south of the country. Hopeful, her brother had called it. Complacent, Leander had replied under his breath. As in most things, Stevaine agreed with the Sergeant.
The old tower house - a structure which had stood against invasion for generations - had been hidden behind a red-brick facade and was now partner to a well-proportioned range which flanked the main courtyard. There was a gate set centrally in the ornately decorated wall, open and welcoming.
The company of ten entered the structure and left their steeds with the stable hands. The officers were reunited with Hale and led to the great hall to meet with D Ashen, whilst the rest of the unit were shown to a small store room which, the steward explained, was the only remaining space in which he could house them.
I would have pressed on to the Finders camp had I known, Stevaine said, apologetic.
You wouldn t have found anyone there, the steward muttered, Their commissions appear to have found our hall...
Even the corridor was lavish, painted in blues and reds and golds. The staircase itself was open and straight, giving any intruders an easy run at the castle guards. Stevaine found herself feeling increasingly uneasy. The years in the military had turned every building she entered into a series strategic points to cover in case of an attack. Anything short of the traditional clockwise spiral staircase made her thigh muscles tense and teeth grind.
She flicked her eyes to Leander and he nodded once as they entered the great hall. Mirroring the corridor and the building s facade, the room was opulent and rich. An enormous fire had been lit in the grate and gathered on a bench around it were a group of well-dressed men and soldiers, sharing flagons of claret.
The steward gestured for them to remain by the door as he approached D Ashen and the group of four stood, staring at the surrounding splendour.
Very... modern, Hale muttered when the steward was out of earshot.
Gaudy, I d say, replied the Warrant Lieutenant, Jared Deacon. Leander smiled but said nothing.
When the Steward returned he motioned for them to follow him towards the fire. Crossing the room, Stevaine could see a small group of women, sat at a little table in the corner, playing cards. She felt their eyes on her as she headed towards the men and was suddenly conscious about her height. A good foot taller than the petite Hale, and of similar stature to both Deacon and Leander, Stevaine felt like a giant amongst them.
Don t crouch, he d said in a voice she could barely remember now, stand up straight and act as if there s nothing wrong - it ll be their problem then, not yours. She had dismissed it when he d said it, sobbing that standing tall and straight would only make it worse but for some reason, his words had stuck anyway and now, as D Ashen and the others stood to greet them, she threw her shoulders back and held out her hand.
Lady Daviot, D Ashen said, turning her outstretched palm and kissing her knuckles. She snatched her fingers back and glowered involuntarily.
Captain is more than sufficient, Sir. I lost any claim I had to the Horne estate when I joined the military. I am no more of a lady than you are. She winced, inwardly, as the words escaped her lips. Leander tried to hide a smile but if D Ashen noticed her unintentional slight and the Sergeants reaction, he said nothing
I apologise, Captain Daviot, he gestured for Stevaine and Hale to sit but made no move to ensure there was space for Leander and Hale made to move forward, Stevaine remained standing until D Ashen continued, It s lucky that you happened to call here before the camp. We have the Captain of the Finders here, and his commission Lieutenant.
Not your Sergeant? Stevaine turned to the man D Ashen had referred to as the captain and offered her hand again. This time, it was met by a firm hand shake - a gesture she was infinitely more comfortable with.
I felt the warrants would be more comfortable at the camp - this is all rather... lavish, he motioned to the extravagant decor and Stevaine fought hard to keep her eyes on the carved beams, and not on the collection of pale faces, staring at her from the card table.
I brought my Sergeant. And my warrant Lieutenant, she was unable to keep the offence from her voice and took a deep breath, But enough of this. I came to thank our host for his hospitality and to say that we would be at your camp come dawn tomorrow.
Captain, the Finder acknowledged.
Sirs. Stevaine replied and led their little procession back to the courtyard and towards the stable. A servant stood waiting for them by the entrance to the kitchens and showed them to the store room which had been set aside for them.