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Ellen Porath

Steel and Stone

Prologue

Fog hung low over the damp ground, clinging to scattered crusts of dirty snow as night eased into predawn gray. A black-haired woman, mist curling around her knee-high ebony boots, slapped canvas tents with an ungloved hand as she wove through a nearly silent camp. A few dozen soldiers were already awake; they looked up and smiled as she passed.

'It's time to earn your pay, you lazy meadow slugs,' she snapped at the slumbering men. 'Get moving!' In her wake, curses resounded. Soldiers verbally abused the woman's ancestors as the men groped for weapons, boots, and helmets. One by one they opened tent flaps and emerged into the winter chill. The soldiers fastened woolen cloaks at their necks and swore at the weather's bite.

'By the gods, couldn't the crazy Valdane and his accursed mage have waited until summer?' a bearded man complained, glaring over a red nose and sandy mustache toward two large tents erected uphill from the main camp, a hundred paces away.

'Quiet, Lloiden!' his companion cautioned. An elderly-looking man had appeared suddenly in the opening of the smaller of the two tents and now fastened a dark gaze directly on the pair of complainers. The old man's black robe was tied at the waist with a silken rope, from which hung a dozen gathered pouches. Gaunt fingers toyed with one pouch, and Lloiden's companion went pale. He again gestured to his tentmate to remain silent.

The woman halted her progress and turned back toward the bearded soldier. She spoke quietly. 'The head of the last man who questioned the Valdane's judgment, or that of his mage, lies south of here, at the last mountain pass. Some say it possesses an uncanny resemblance to a toad's. The Valdane has the wealth to pay his mercenaries well. That's our only concern, Lloiden.'

The first man set his chin obstinately. He waved one hand, as if to leave the subject behind, and waited until the mage wheeled and stalked back into his tent. Then Lloiden continued his complaint.

'Surely the pay's one issue, but isn't strategy another?' he pressed, dew clinging to his beard. 'What are we doing attacking after a siege of only two weeks? Why, I was at the siege of Festwild, north of Neraka, years ago. That one lasted eighteen months, and even then at the final surge the enemy held us back for another three days of battle!'

Other soldiers paused in their preparations to cast curious glances at the curly-haired woman and her quarrelsome subordinate.

The woman's air of command seemed at variance with her years. She could be no older than her early twenties, they guessed. Black leather covered her body from neck to ankle, the accompanying chain mail doing little to spoil the youthful litheness of her form. Snow-marten fur warmed the neck of her woolen cloak and trimmed the tough leather that protected her arms from palm to elbow. The hilt of her sword glittered.

Lloiden's tentmate edged away. Another man whispered loudly, 'Cap'n Kitiara'll have Lloiden's 'ead now fer doubtin' her ladyship's authority. This'll be good.' The soldiers poked each other and grinned.

But Kitiara merely shook her head with a resignation that suggested she'd been over the subject too often. 'Insane impatience,' she said, agreeing. 'Two weeks have barely touched the Meir's supplies. Even though the Meir has been slain, the time has done little to dishearten the castle's defenders.'

'Then I repeat, why attack?' demanded Lloiden. 'Why not starve them out?'

Kitiara opened her mouth, then snapped it shut again. She swept a hand through her damp, black hair, which flattened and then sprang back into curls. But there was no hint of her customary crooked grin as she glanced up at the mage's tent. 'The Valdane wants a quick end to it.'

Another soldier spoke, his voice just above a whisper. 'Some say the Valdane fears his daughter would be able to muster Meiri forces against him.'

'Especially now,' a comrade agreed. 'With her husband dead, the Meiri see Dreena as their only hope against her father.'

Kitiara stopped and spoke again. 'At any rate, the generals have gone along with the Valdane's haste, and they're not about to listen to the protests of a mere captain.' She paused, her contempt for the commanders clear. 'Especially with the mage backing up the Valdane's every command. Now leave it, Lloiden.' There was no brooking her tone; Lloiden shook his head and continued his preparations.

The captain paused at her own tent and raised her voice. 'Get up, Mackid! You can't be that tired. You certainly didn't keep me awake long last night.'

The other mercenaries guffawed in appreciation, and several offered to take Caven Mackid's place in Kitiara's tent, but no answer sounded through the canvas.

'Caven?' Kitiara pulled the flap aside. The quick way she let it fall showed the onlookers that Caven Mackid was elsewhere. The half-exasperated, half-admiring glance she cast downhill toward the makeshift corral showed where she suspected Mackid might be. 'Blast Maleficent,' she muttered. 'Would that the man paid as much attention to practicing his swordplay as he does to tending that stallion.' She resumed exhorting her troops. They were gnawing a cold breakfast of cheese and dried venison as they prepared for battle.

Kitiara reached the western edge of the hillside camp and stopped to gaze toward a bank of mountains to the east. Dawn lightened the sky to gray. Far to the west, the crags of another mountain range still slept in the darkness, tree-shrouded and silent. The two ranges continued in a ragged V to the south, where they cradled the city of Kernen, home of the Valdane-who now crouched like a lynx at the door of his neighbor.

It was common knowledge that the Valdane had betrothed his only child to the Meir in the hope of persuading the younger man to annex the Meir's kingdom to the Valdane's. The marriage had not had the intended effect, and the Valdane had sworn vengeance.

Now Kitiara listened to the muffled clinks and oaths of a mercenary army planning to overrun the thin but loyal Meiri forces. She continued to pick her way over the slanted ground through fog and felled branches, seeking an overview of the intended battlefield. Of course, she'd been over the terrain often during the two weeks they'd camped here, but ground conditions could change quickly and treacherously in winter.

Shouts from the camp drew Kitiara's attention now. She saw mercenaries turn to face the Meir's castle, nestled in a treeless hollow below the camp. Kitiara had already noted the figure of a woman on the battlements, but she hadn't guessed who it was. Now she realized. The woman, blond hair shining nearly white, was dressed brilliantly in royal blue and blood red, the colors of the Meiri.

'Dreena ten Valdane,' Kitiara whispered.

Although mist hid the bottom ten feet of the castle, the woman's slim figure made a splendid target atop the battlements, several hundred yards from her father's camp in the trees. Dreena ten Valdane stood some sixty feet above the soldiers. But that was within range of the Valdane's hired archers.

'Precisely where her husband stood last week when he took the arrow,' Kitiara said softly to herself. 'Perhaps she hopes to join him now.' She snorted.

As Kitiara watched, Dreena ten Valdane waved boldly at the largest tent in Kitiara's camp, the one that flew the black and purple standard of the Valdane of Kern. Then the young woman stepped back and was gone.

'She's a fool,' said a black-haired, black-bearded man as he emerged from the mist near Kitiara. 'Why antagonize her father like that? Her forces are bound to lose. Dreena ten Valdane will need whatever goodwill she can muster just to keep her head once this is over. The Valdane considers her an enemy as much as her late husband.'

Kitiara squinted into the fog. 'It's no treachery to defend your own country, Mackid.'

'She's betraying her father.'

'But not her husband.'

Caven Mackid's tone was amused. 'Is Captain Uth Matar going soft? By the gods, Kitiara, you defending romance?'

'Hardly. But I can appreciate her courage in standing up for someone she loves.'

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