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Trouble is brewing in the forest (and this is why this book probably shouldn’t be classed as middle grade). But yay, Sid!
YOU WANTED A chance to prove yourself, Hawk thought grimly as he stalked back into camp. Idiot.
He eyed the bird riding on his shoulder suspiciously. There was no proof of talk between mages and mage-beasts. They might occasionally share their senses, like sight or hearing, but there was no verbal communications between them. Except sometimes he could swear the extra critical voice in his head had a very Cyrus-ish air.
The warning was late as a copper-headed boulder crashed into him. Cyrus flapped off in a huff, leaving Hawk with the over-excitable, highly talkative, but very small Lady Sidony Roscoe of Summerford Lea. He’d only met the girl six days ago when he’d stopped at the Roscoe estate to do a favour for one of the squires. Lord Simeon was such a level-headed, likeable lad that it had seemed no bother to escort his little sister to the city for the start of her mage training.
Ha! Simeon was in for a pounding when Hawk saw him next.
Sidony was hanging onto his arm, jumping up and down to get his attention. “Is it true, Hawk? Is it? Are we going to be kidnapped by pirates?”
“Er…” Pirates? They were a three-day ride from the coast. “Not exactly.”
“Slavers then, from Neystan?”
Also unlikely since the Empire was a least a thousand miles away, and not well known for operating in central Wrystan. “I don’t know.”
“Oh.” Sidony looked momentarily defeated, frowning hard as she tried to conjure up another enemy to Wrystani mages. “One of the Mallesene Princes?” She grimaced. “Mountains, I hope not. They marry their daughters off at eleven.”
“Only in some princedoms,” he corrected, “and only dynastically. I don’t think the bride and groom actually live together until they’re older.”
“Well, I’m not marrying any stinky old Mallesene Prince.” Sidony folded her arms with a firm nod.
Somehow Hawk didn’t think it was likely anyone would try to make her. She might look sweet with her coppery hair, freckle-splattered skin and button nose, but she had the temper of a wildcat and the energy of a whole autumn’s worth of storms. Part of him was tempted to hand her over to these kidnappers, whoever they were, and welcome.
They’d be begging him to take her back within two days.
A tug on his tunic drew his attention down again. She peered up at him with worried green eyes, suddenly serious. “What are we going to do, Hawk? We won’t let them catch us, will we?” She wrinkled her nose. “Not that I think they could keep us, but I’d rather they didn’t get their hands on Cricket.”
An excessively cute wood mouse peeped out from beneath Sidony’s collar, his round eyes an unusual deep green, perfectly matching his mage’s. Unlike Sidony, Cricket was very shy and quiet; this was only the second time Hawk had seen him.
He didn’t want kidnappers getting their hands on Cricket either. Although he’d like to see them try it on Cyrus. There’d be a few fingers missing by the end.
Feeling every one of the three years that separated his age from Sidony’s eleven, Hawk patted her shoulder reassuringly. “They won’t get close to him, Sid. I promise.”
She beamed, her smile as bright as her hair. “Can I come? I’m good with a sword.”
Hawk raised an eyebrow, a trick he’d learnt from many an unimpressed mage-tutor. Before Hawk left Summerford Lea, the armsmaster had taken him aside and explained all about Sidony’s sword skills. Or lack thereof.
“If I’m never allowed to practise, how can I get better?” Sidony muttered sulkily.
Hawk just looked at her.
She shuffled her feet. “Well, I can use a staff. Our armsmaster says I’ve got a real knack.”
For knocking out her own side, was how he’d put it to Hawk.
“I’m good!” Sidony insisted, voice rising as she tried to win through shouting. “I swear I am. I hardly ever hit myself anymore. And I’ll do exactly what you tell me, I promise.”
He had no doubt she’d try, but Sidony had a temper and when it was roused she didn’t listen to anything but the thunder of her own blood. She turned those huge eyes on him, shining with the onset of tears, but Hawk hardened his heart. He wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t risk her.
“Please.” She sniffled.
Her lower lip wobbled and a tear trickled down her cheek. “I’ll be good.”
He grinned. “No, you won’t.”
Her eyes narrowed, the tears vanishing as quickly as they’d come. “Boys!” She stamped her foot. “You’re never any fun!”
“Stay with Irissa,” he shouted as she stormed away. “And leave Ren alone!” The squad leader was a sucker for a big pair of eyes, which was how Irissa had ended up travelling with them in the first place.
Sidony flicked her hand over her shoulder in a gesture no finely bred lady should have known and, despite the looming danger, Hawk laughed.
His amusement died as he turned to see Danny, the youngest guardsman, running towards him, clutching his side. “The scouts, milord,” he puffed, doubling over, chest heaving.
“What about them?” Hawk asked, looking frantically around for Ren and breathing a sigh of relief as the squad leader emerged from the camp, leather flask in hand.
Danny accepted it with a grateful nod, guzzling greedily until half of it spilled over his chin. “Gone, milord,” he gasped, dragging his sleeve across his face. “Taken.”
Ren gripped the panting lad by the shoulder and looked at Hawk. “The sentries?”
“Call them in,” Hawk agreed, frowning as he tried to think while Ren shouted his orders. Their enemy was unseen and unknown. They knew they were out in the forest somewhere, getting close, but exactly where or how many remained a mystery.
“How many scouts have we lost?” he asked Ren in an undertone.
Ren rubbed the back of his neck and grimaced. “Two, milord, since Danny’s back.”
Two men out of twelve. True, Hawk could fight if it came to that, but since his healing skills might be needed later he would have to conserve his strength. Ten men, a healer, a witch and a mage so new she hadn’t even seen the colour of her magic yet.
They were doomed.
Hawk’s heart sank as he turned again. Merro hurried towards him, a grizzled old veteran brought along to keep the younger guards in line. He was limping. “The sentries, milor-” He fell forward with a sharp cough, a quivering arrow buried between his shoulder blades.
Hawk looked up and stared at the glinting tip of an arrow aimed straight at him.
“All gone,” the archer said from the depths of his black hood.
The arrow sliced the air with a hiss, scratching Hawk’s cheek as it raced past. A wet thunk and a pained grunt was his only warning before he was pulled over backwards, dragged down by the weight of his own fallen guardsman.
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