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Lady Knight

Tamora Pierce

  Table of Contents

  Title Page






















  September 10, 460







  Copyright Page

  To the people of New York City,

  I always knew the great sacrifice and kindness

  my neighbors are capable of,

  but now the rest of the country knows, too.

  I am not part of your idea of time, the Chamber

  told her. . . . You mortals are like fish swimming

  in a globe of glass. That globe is your world.

  You do not see beyond it.

  I am all around that globe, everywhere at once. I am in your yesterdays and tomorrows just as I am in your today, and it all looks the same to me. I only know you will find yourself in that one’s path. When you do, you must stop him. He perverts life and the living. That must not continue. Its tone changed; later, Kel would think the thing had been disgruntled . I thought you would like the warning.

  Kel crossed her arms over her chest, disgusted. “So you don’t know when I’ll see that piece of human waste. The Nothing Man. Blayce. Or that warrior of his, what’s his name? Stenmun.”


  “And you don’t know where they are.”

  Your ideas of countries and borders are meaningless to me.

  “But you thought I’d be happy to know that the one who’s making the killing devices, who’s murdering children, will come my way. Sometime. Someplace.”



  the capital of Tortall;

  in the 21st year of the reign of

  Jonathan IV and Thayet, his Queen,

  460 H.E. (Human Era)



  Keladry of Mindelan lay with the comfortable black blanket of sleep wrapped around her. Then, against the blackness, light moved and strengthened to show twelve large, vaguely rat- or insectlike metal creatures, devices built for murder. The killing devices were magical machines made of iron-coated giants’ bones, chains, pulleys, dagger-fingers and -toes, and a long, whiplike tail. The seven-foot-tall devices stood motionless in a half circle as the light revealed what lay at their feet: a pile of dead children.

  With the devices and the bodies visible, the light spread to find the man who seemed to be the master of the creations. To Keladry of Mindelan, known as Kel, he was the Nothing Man. He was almost two feet shorter than the killing devices, long-nosed and narrow-mouthed, with small, rapidly blinking eyes and dull brown hair. His dark robe was marked with stains and burns; his hair was unkempt. He always gnawed a fingernail, or scratched a pimple, or shifted from foot to foot.

  Once that image—devices, bodies, man—was complete, Kel woke. She stared at the shadowed ceiling and cursed the Chamber of the Ordeal. The Chamber had shown Kel this vision, or variations of it, after her formal Ordeal of knighthood. As far as Kel knew, no one else had been given any visions of people to be found once a squire was knighted. As everyone she knew understood it, the Ordeal was straightforward enough. The Chamber forced would-be knights to live through their fears. If they did this without making a sound, they were released, to be proclaimed knights, and that was the end of the matter.

  Kel was different. Three or four times a week, the Chamber sent her this dream. It was a reminder of the task it had set her. After her Ordeal, before the Chamber set her free, it had shown her the killing devices, the Nothing Man, and the dead children. It had demanded that Kel stop it all.

  Kel guessed that the Nothing Man would be in Scanra, to the north, since the killing devices had appeared during Scanran raids on Tortall last summer. Trapped in the capital by a hard winter, with travel to the border nearly impossible, Kel had lived with growing tension. She had to ride north as soon as the mountain passes opened if she was to sneak into Scanra and begin her search for the Nothing Man. Every moment she remained in Tortall invited the growing risk that the king would issue orders to most knights, including Kel, to defend the northern border. The moment Kel got those orders, she would be trapped. She had vowed to defend the realm and obey its monarchs, which would mean fighting soldiers, not hunting for a mage whose location was unknown.

  “Maybe I’ll get lucky. Maybe I’ll ride out one day and find there’s a line of killing devices from the palace right up to the Nothing Man’s door,” she grumbled, easing herself out from under her covers. Kel never threw off her blankets. With a number of sparrows and her dog sharing her bed, she might smother a friend if she hurried. Even taking care, she heard muffled cheeps of protest. “Sorry,” she told her companions, and set her feet on the cold flagstones of her floor.

  She made her way across her dark room and opened the shutters on one of her windows. Before her lay a courtyard and a stable where the men of the King’s Own kept their horses. The torches that lit the courtyard were nearly out. The pearly radiance that came to the eastern sky in the hour before dawn fell over snow, stable, and the edges of the palace wall beyond.

  The scant light showed a big girl of eighteen, broad-shouldered and solid-waisted, with straight mouse-brown hair cut short below her earlobes and across her forehead. She had a dreamer’s hazel eyes, set beneath long, curling lashes, odd in contrast to the many fine scars on her hands and the muscles that flexed and bunched under her nightshirt. Her nose was still unbroken and delicate after eight years of palace combat training, her lips full and quicker to smile than frown. Determination filled every inch of her strong body.

  Motion in the shadows at the base of the courtyard wall caught her eye. Kel gasped as a winged creature waddled out into the open courtyard, as ungainly on its feet as a vulture. The flickering torchlight caught and sparked along the edges of metal feathers on wings and legs. Steel legs, flexible and limber, ended in steel-clawed feet. Between the metal wings and above the metal legs and feet was human flesh, naked, hairless, grimy, and in this case, male.

  The Stormwing looked at Kel and grinned, baring sharp steel teeth. His face was lumpy and unattractive, marked by a large nose, small eyes, and a thin upper lip with a full lower one. He had the taunting smile of someone born impudent. “Startle you, did I?” he inquired.

  Kel thanked the gods that the cold protected her sensitive nose, banishing most of the Stormwing’s foul stench. Stormwings loved battle-fields, where they tore corpses to pieces, urinated on them, smeared them with dung, then rolled in the mess. The result was a nauseating odor that made even the strongest stomach rebel. Her teachers had explained that the purpose of Stormwings was to make people think twice before they chose to fight, knowing what might happen to the dead when Stormwings arrived. So far they hadn’t done much good as far as Kel could see: people still fought battles and killed each other, Stormwings or no. Tortall’s Stormwing population was thriving. But this was the first time she’d seen one on palace grounds.

  Kel glared at him. “Get out of here, you nasty thing! Shoo!”

  “Is that any way to greet a future companion?” demanded the Stormwing, raising thin brown brows. “You people are getting ready to stage an entertainment for our benefit up north. You’ll be seeing a lot of us this year.”<
br />
  “Not if I can help it,” Kel retorted. Grimly she walked across her dark room, stubbing her toe on the trunk at the foot of her bed. She cursed and limped over to the racks where she kept her weapons. When she found her bow and a quiver of arrows, she strung the bow and hopped back to her window. She placed the quiver on her window seat and put an arrow on the string. Outside, the courtyard was empty. The Stormwing’s footprints in the snow ended right under Kel’s window.

  Scowling, Kel looked up and around. There he was, perched on the peak of the stable roof, a steel-dressed portent of war. Kel raised her bow. She wouldn’t actually kill the creature, just make him go away.

  He looked down at her, cackled, and took to the air, spiraling out of Kel’s range. He flipped his tail at her three times in a mockery of a wave, then sailed away over the palace wall.

  “I hate those things,” grumbled Kel as she removed the bowstring. The thought of anyone’s dead body providing Stormwings with entertainment gave her the shudders. And she knew chances were good that she might become a Stormwing toy very soon.

  There was no point in going back to sleep now. Instead, Kel cleaned up, dressed, and took down her glaive. It was her favorite weapon, a wooden staff five feet long, filled in iron, cored with lead, and capped by eighteen inches of curved, razor-sharp steel. Banishing all thoughts, opening herself to movement, she began the first steps, thrusts, lunges, and spins of the most complicated combat pattern dance she knew.

  Her dog, Jump, grumbled and crawled out of bed. He leaped out of one of the open windows to empty his bladder. The sparrows, fluffed up and piping their own complaints, fluttered outside to visit their kinfolk around the palace.

  Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie’s Peak, Kel’s former knight-master and present taskmaster, was not in his study when Kel arrived there after breakfast. Another morning conference, she thought, and sat down with chalk and slate to calculate the number of wagons they’d need to move the King’s Own’s supplies up to the Scanran border. She was nearly done when Lord Raoul came in, a sheaf of papers in one ham-sized fist.

  “We’re in it for certain,” he told Kel. He was a big man, heavily muscled from years of service with the Own. His ruddy face was lit with snapping black eyes and topped with black curls. Like Kel, he was dressed for comfort in tunic, shirt, breeches, and boots in shades of maroon, brown, and cream. He slammed his bulk into one of the chairs facing the desk where she worked. “You know, I thank the gods every day that Daine is on our side,” he informed Kel. “If ever we’ve needed a mage who can get animals to spy and carry messages, it’s now.”

  Kel nodded. Unlike other generations, hers did not have to wait for Scanran information until the mountain passes cleared each year. Daine, known as the Wildmage, shared a magical bond with animals, one that endured even when she was not with them. For three years her eagles, hawks, owls, pigeons, and geese had carried tidings south while the land slept through winter snows, allowing Tortall to prepare for the latest moves in Scanra.

  “Important news, I take it?” Kel asked.

  “I’m glad you’re sitting down,” Raoul said. “The Scanrans have a new king.”

  Kel shrugged. Rulership in Scanra was always changing. The clan lords were unruly and proud; few dynasties ruled for more than a generation or two. This one hadn’t even lasted a full generation. She was surprised that Raoul would be concerned about yet another king on what was called the Bloody Throne. Far more worrisome was the threat that had emerged a couple of years before, a warlord named Maggur Rathhausak. He had studied combat in realms with real armies, not raiding bands. Serving as one clan’s warlord, he had conducted enough successful raids in Tortall that other clans had asked him to lead their fighters as well. With more warriors he had won more victories and brought home more loot and slaves, enough to bribe other clans to swear allegiance to him. It was Rathhausak that the Tortallans prepared to fight this year, not the ruling council in Hamrkeng or its king.

  “So they’ll be fighting each other all summer instead of . . .” Kel let her voice trail off as Raoul shook his head. “Sir?” she asked, unsure of his meaning.

  “Maggur Rathhausak,” Raoul told her. “He’s brought all Scanra’s clans into his grip. This year he’ll have a real army to send against us. A real army, trained for army-style battle, instead of a basketful of raiding parties. Plus however many of those killing devices he can send along to cut our people to shreds. The messages from the north report at least fifty of the things, wrapped up in canvas and waiting for the spell that will make them move again.”

  Kel set her chalk and slate down. Then she swallowed and asked, “The council let Maggur take over?”

  “They weren’t given a choice. Maggur had nine clans under his banner last year. The word is he smuggled them into the capital at Hamrkeng after the summer fighting and, well, persuaded all the clans to make him king.” Raoul tossed his papers on the desk with a sigh. “We knew it was to be war this summer, but we thought we’d be facing half the warriors in the country, not all. Jonathan’s sending messengers out to all the lords of his council. He wants our army to start north as soon as we can manage it.” The big man grinned, exposing all his teeth, wolflike. “We’ll prepare the warmest reception for our northern brothers that we can. Once they cross our border, they’ll think they’ve marched into a bake oven, by Mithros.”

  Kel stared blindly at the papers Raoul had just thrown onto the desk. It was decision time: await the Crown’s orders, or slip away to wait for the northern passes to clear so she could track down the Nothing Man? She didn’t know enough; that was the problem. She needed information, and there was only one place she could think of to get it. “Sir, has anybody ever entered the Chamber of the Ordeal a second time?”

  For a moment the only sound was the crackle of the fire in the hearth. Raoul froze. At length he said, “I must tell the bathhouse barber to clean my ears tomorrow. I could have sworn you just asked me if anyone has ever returned to the Chamber of the Ordeal. That’s not funny, Kel.”

  “I didn’t mean to be funny, sir,” she replied. Shortly after her Ordeal and knighthood, Raoul had commanded her to address him by his first name, but “sir” was as close as she could bring herself. She clenched her hands so he couldn’t see them shake. “I’m serious. I need to know if you’ve ever heard of anyone going back there.”

  “No,” Raoul said firmly. “No one’s been mad enough to consider it. Most folk can tell if once is more than enough. Why in the name of the Great Mother Goddess do you ask?”

  Kel swallowed. If he didn’t like her question, he really wouldn’t like what she was about to say. “I need to talk to it.”

  Raoul rubbed his face with one hand. “You need to talk to it,” he repeated.

  Kel nodded. “Sir, you know me,” she reminded him. “I wouldn’t ask anything silly, not when you bring such important news. But I have to know if I can enter the Chamber again. I need to find something out.”

  “You’re right, I do know you,” Raoul said glumly. “No, no, you wouldn’t jest at a time like this. I’m afraid you’re stuck, though. No one has been allowed back inside that thing in all history. No one would ever want to go back. You’ll just have to settle for what you got in there the first time.” He held her questioning eyes with his own anxious ones.

  Kel wished that she could explain, but she couldn’t. Knights were forbidden to tell what had taken place during their Ordeal. “I didn’t mean to worry you, sir,” she told him at last.

  Raoul scowled at her. “Don’t frighten me like that again. I’ve put far too much work into you to see you go mad now.” He looked around. “What were we doing last?”

  “Wagon requisitions, sir,” she replied as she held up her slate.

  He took it and reviewed her numbers. “Let’s finish this now. I won’t be able to work on them this afternoon—the council will be meeting.”

  Kel fetched the papers he needed. “There was a Stormwing in the courtyard this morning,”
she remarked as she laid them out. “I think he already knows how bad things will be this summer.”

  Raoul grunted. “I wouldn’t be surprised. They probably smell it. Now what’s this scrawl? I can’t read Aiden’s writing.” They spent the rest of the morning at work, sorting through the endless details that had to be settled before the men of the King’s Own rode north to war.

  After lunch Kel saw to her horses, stabled in the building the Stormwing had turned into his momentary perch. There were hostlers, whose job it was to mind the hundreds of horses kept at the palace, but Kel preferred to see to her riding mount, Hoshi, and her warhorse, Peachblossom, herself. The work was soothing and gave her time to think.

  Jump watched as she tended the horses. The scruffy dog had put in an appearance at Kel’s side about mid-morning, clearly recovered from having his morning’s sleep interrupted by Kel and a Stormwing.

  Jump was not a typical palace dog, being neither a silky, combed, small type favored by ladies nor a wolf- or boar-hound breed prized by lords. Jump was a stocky, short-haired dog of medium size, a combat veteran. His left ear was a tatter. His dense fur was mostly white, raised or dented in places where it grew over old scars. Black splotches covered most of the pink skin of his nose, his only whole ear, and his rump. His tail was a jaunty war banner, broken in two places and healed crooked. Jump’s axe-shaped head was made for clamping on to an enemy with jaws that would not let go. He had small, black, triangular eyes that, like those of any creature who’d spent a lot of time with Daine the Wildmage, were far more intelligent than those of animals who hadn’t.

  “I need more information,” Kel murmured to Jump as she mucked out Hoshi’s stall. “And soon, before the king orders us out with the army. I certainly can’t tell the king I won’t go. He’ll want to know why, and I can’t talk about what happened during my Ordeal.”

  Jump whuffed softly in understanding.

  Her horses tended, Kel reported to a palace library. There, she and the other knights who were her year-mates (young men who had begun their page studies when she had) practiced the Scanran tongue. Many Scanrans spoke Common, the language used in all the Eastern Lands between the Inland Sea and the Roof of the World, but the study of Scanran would help those who fought them to read their messages and interpret private conversations.