Ellis jumped to her feet, the need to do something burning in her chest. The aras was gone. Grandfather still stood in the stable’s aisle, the bloodied knife in his hand. He did not look pleased.
“He said a farm,” Sirtris said. “Is that where they’re holding her?”
Grandfather wiped the blade on a blanket that lay over one of the stall doors. “Yes. I assume so. Kiya can usually only get out a few words before he’s overwhelmed.”
Sirtris gestured toward the lieutenant’s prone form. “How long will he be like that?”
Grandfather sighed. “That depends on the age of the person he touched. A few hours to a day. Likely more on the few hours end.”
“While that creature could be hurting her in retaliation,” Sirtris snapped. “We need to find her now.”
“Miss Dantreon will not be the aras’ first priority,” Grandfather said, making a calming gesture. “She was injured, so she’s in retreat.”
Sirtris stepped closer, jaw clenching. “We need to find her.”
“I agree,” Grandfather said. “She’s on a farm, in the dark, where it’s cool in midsummer. That limits it.”
“Root cellar,” Sirtris said. “But there are dozens of farms around here.”
“We’ll search them all,” Grandfather said, obviously trying to sound reassuring. “Be patient.”
“Ask Idiris,” Ellis suggested. “I always see her and Miralys together, so…”
Captain Sirtris didn’t wait for her to finish that. He strode toward the stable door, shoved it open, and was gone into the brighter sunlight. Ellis looked back to Grandfather, who was scowling down at the lieutenant. “What do we do with them?”
“What did you do?” Thomas asked her as he stepped inside the stable.
Grandfather waved him closer. “Take Llelas back to his room, boy. He’ll need to sleep this off.”
“His nose is bleeding,” Thomas protested.
“It happens,” Grandfather snapped. He turned to Ellis. “Go after that hothead, girl. Make sure he doesn’t break any laws. I’ll join you two as soon as I get Kiya settled.”
“Farinen?” Thomas asked. “It is Farinen, isn’t it? You can’t order Cadet Dantreon…”
“I can,” Grandfather said. “I’m not who you think I am, boy. Just get Llelas out of here.” Having said that, he crouched down next to Lieutenant Sidreiyan and effortlessly lifted the much-larger man in his arms. “Girl, go after Sirtris!”
“Yes, sir,” Ellis replied automatically, and ran off in the direction that the captain had gone.
She found Captain Sirtris inside, gesturing quickly toward Geris.
“Ellis,” Geris called past him, “where are the girls?”
“My room, last I saw them,” Ellis called back.
Sirtris strode off down the hallway. Ellis jogged after him, finally catching him at the door to her bedroom. He paused, as if waiting for her permission, so she waved him on. The girls, it turned out, were out in the courtyard with the dogs, still. The courtyard was small, mostly paved with large flagstones, but trees planted at the corners made it a shady area for the dogs to lie down in, cool even in the hottest of summers. The two girls were sitting on the flags playing a game with what appeared to be jacks, with the dogs lolling about them like large rugs. Ellis shooed the dogs back into her room, and asked Daria to let them talk to Idiris alone.
Idiris’ rose and her blue eyes opened wide, her lower lip trembling. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Miss Dantreon,” Sirtris said in a soft voice that must be costing him all his patience. “I wanted to ask you some questions about your aunt.”
Idiris’ eyes slid toward Ellis, as if Ellis might be hiding Miralys behind her. “Where is she?”
“It’s a puzzle,” Sirtris told the child. “We thought she came here with you, but that was another woman who was pretending to be her. So now we have to figure out where your real aunt is.”
The girl’s brow rumpled. “Oh. She didn’t tell me.”
No, the imposter would not have told an eight-year-old her secret.
“It was part of the game, Miss Dantreon,” Sirtris said.
Idiris nodded as if that made perfect sense. “She was funny.”
Sirtris knelt down. “The woman who brought you here? She was funny?”
“She didn’t talk to me.” Idiris’ lower lip slid out. “Aunt Miralys always talks to me.”
Ellis decided that in this case, funny meant odd rather than amusing.
“Was she acting funny when you left the house this morning?” he asked.
Idiris shook her head. “It was later.”
“When? Can you tell me where you were when you first noticed?”
Idiris’ mouth twisted to one side. “When we got to the village she didn’t talk to anyone. She always talks to everyone.”
“Yes, she does.” Sirtris leaned back a bit. “This is important, Miss Dantreon. Did you and your aunt go somewhere before the village?”
“We went to…a farm. There were cows.”
“What else do you remember?”
“There was a barn?” Idiris began to chew her lower lip. “Am I in trouble?”
“No, dear,” Sirtris said, even though Ellis could see that his knuckles were white. “Did your aunt go inside the barn? Or the house?”
Idiris nodded. “I was petting the cows.”
“And then she came back?” he said. “Was she inside for a long time?”
“Yes,” Idiris said. “I got bored and chased the chickens.”
The aras had lured Miralys to a farm somehow, bound her, and placed her somewhere dark. That had to have taken time.
“This is important,” Sirtris said. “Do you remember whose farm it was? Did your aunt say who she was going to visit?”
Idiris seemed to search her memories. “No.”
Sirtris shoulders sank. “Was it a long walk from your house?”
“Yes.” Idiris seemed annoyed by that.
“Can you remember anything else about it?” Sirtris asked her.
“No,” she said.
Sirtris rose and cast a glance toward Ellis. “A farm out past Kensit, with cows and chickens. How many answer that description within a long walk from the town?”
“A lot.” Ellis went closer to the girl. “Idiris, what did the cows look like?”
“They were white with black spots,” Idiris said firmly.
“Dairy cows,” Ellis said to Sirtris. “It’s got to be…uh, the Benianis farm. We run out that way sometimes. They supply the inn’s milk and cheese.”
“Can you take me there?” Sirtris asked. “What’s the fastest way to get there?”
His tension hadn’t left him, she decided, despite how softly he’d spoken to Idiris. Ellis almost suggested running, but he surely wouldn’t like that. “Horses, so the road will be faster than cutting across the estate.”
Sirtris glanced at Idiris again. “Miss Dantreon, if I take you to the library, can you stay there?”
The girl nodded swiftly, so he held out a hand and led her back through Ellis’ bedroom and down the hallway toward the library, his stride shortened so Idiris could keep up. When he opened the library door, he evidently spotted Carmeyon inside. “Go sit with your uncle, all right? But don’t tell him about the game. You’re like a spy, and he’s not supposed to know.”
Idiris nodded, as if that sounded like an excellent plan.
“Why are you still here, cadet?” Sirtris asked.
Ellis didn’t wait for him to finish his instructions to the girl. She ran, out the back doors and down the pathway to the stables. She grabbed her bridle from the tack room, ran back out to the paddock, and whistled for Five, who came obediently, accompanied by two other horses. She climbed over the fence and, after shoving Llelas’ obnoxious gelding away, managed to get Five’s bridle on him. She led him out in time to see Captain Sirtris vaulting over the last row of shrubs, cutting through the gardens as the cadets often did.
He disappeared into the stables and reappeared a moment later, bridle in hand. Ellis tied Five off to the fence and slipped back under to catch the captain’s horse who was, predictably, well-mannered. She’d led him back to the fence by the time the captain climbed over and dropped into the black earth next to her. A few minutes later, they were both ready to ride out.
“Wait,” Thomas said. “I’ll come with you.” He whistled and his horse, trained just as they’d trained Ellis’, came trotting back over. Thomas didn’t even bother with a bridle, just used the fence to push up onto his horse’s back and then swung a leg over. “Where are we going?”
“Dairy farm, a way past Kensit on the main road,” Ellis said, since Sirtris had already ridden off toward the front of the manor house.
“Can you keep up?” Thomas asked.
She wasn’t nearly as good at riding bareback as Thomas, who’d practically been born on a horse, but as long as she didn’t fall off, she would get there. And it was a dairy farm, so Sirtris surely couldn’t miss it. “I’ll try.”
And Thomas was off like a shot, like he had a full saddle under him. Ellis prompted Five to follow, squeezing her legs tight and hanging on. Five took off after Thomas’ mount, settling into a smooth gallop. They tore across the lawn toward the front gates, and hit the road not far behind the captain.
The road to Kensit seemed shorter on a galloping horse, and it wasn’t long before they were passing through the main street of the village, startling villagers with their hurry. Five had to dance around a wagon that emerged from a side street, making Ellis fall behind again, but otherwise she got through the village unscathed, and without hitting anyone.
They rode on, picking up speed again, Thomas drawing ahead. And apparently, he didn’t need to be told what a dairy farm looked like, because he turned on the correct drive and headed toward the barn. But the time Ellis reached the barnyard, Thomas had already jumped off his horse’s back. Captain Sirtris slid off his horse and tossed his reins to Thomas, so Ellis did likewise, trusting that Thomas would know what to do. The cows were all crowded by the paddock gate, lowing loudly now that they’d arrived.
The captain surveyed the farm’s main yard. “Where’s the family?”
“The cows need to be milked,” he said. “That’s why they’re all at the gate. Quick, do they make cheese?”
Ellis blinked. “Yes, I think so.”
The captain turned to Thomas. “You and Ellis take the house. Find out if the family is inside. I’ll look for the cellars.”
He ran toward the side of the barn, apparently to look behind it. Thomas had tied off the two horses to a fence post, trusting his own mount to stay with them, apparently. He gestured for Ellis to come with him to the house. She jogged in his wake. Thomas reached the door first, banged on it, and waited for an answer, one ear pressed against it. After a second, he went ahead and opened the door out.
“Is anyone here?” he yelled as he stepped inside.
Ellis pushed in past him. Muffled voices came from somewhere inside. She followed the sounds toward the back of the house. In a bedroom, Mr. Benianis, his wife, and son, were all sitting against a wall, bound and gagged. Their eyes widened at the sight of Ellis and Thomas. Thomas drew a knife from his boot and began cutting their ties. The son—a young and wiry dark-haired boy of twelve or so—was the first he freed. As soon as the boy was untied, he bolted out of the room, down the hallway, and out the front door.
I need a knife. In the time that it took Thomas to free the son, Ellis had only managed to remove Mrs. Benianis’ gag. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” Mrs. Benianis said, voice trembling. She was a fair woman not much older than Daria’s mother, with light brown hair and pale skin that reminded Ellis of Yefin’s coloration. “I don’t understand,” she said. “What did we do?”
“Nothing,” Ellis said. “Who tied you up?”
“Miss Dantreon,” the woman whispered. “She was so strong.”
Because it was an aras, not Miralys Dantreon. “It wasn’t her,” Ellis insisted. “It was someone who looked like her. An imposter.”
“A demon,” the woman mumbled as Ellis tried to find the knot that bound the woman’s hands. The ropes went around her hands, her feet, and her neck, but she couldn’t see a knot anywhere.
“It’s behind her back, wrapped around her neck. Don’t pull on it,” Thomas said, sawing at the ropes binding the farmer’s hands. He ground his teeth together as he severed the last strand, and the farmer immediately reached up to pull the gag from his mouth, groaning. He was the source of the son’s dark hair and wiriness, Ellis decided, at least part Menhirre.
“God help me, it hurts,” the man said, breath hissing between his teeth.
“How long have you been tied up?” Ellis asked.
“She came right after luncheon,” Mrs. Benianis said, crying now.
Thomas had untangled the ropes from around the man’s feet and cautiously helped the man to his feet. Mr. Benianis, his features pale, could only lean against the wall. “Help her,” he said, nodding toward his wife. “Please.”
Thomas knelt and began cutting the ropes. Ellis had moved farther back into the room to get out of his way. Mrs. Benianis wept freely now, but Ellis guessed that was relief or shock, not new pain. After a moment, Mr. Benianis pushed away from the wall.
“You will take care of her, yes?” he asked Thomas.
“We’ll do so,” Thomas said, not looking up. “You go on, sir.”
The man walked stiffly out of the bedroom, following the path his son had taken. Ellis waited as Thomas cut the last of the rope about Mrs. Benianis’ feet, and then helped him unravel the ropes. Eventually they had the last of it off her, and Ellis helped her gingerly to her feet, the woman hissing in pain all the while. “Maybe you should lie down on the bed,” Ellis suggested.
“I have to help with the milking,” the woman said.
“Lie down,” Thomas said. “I’ve milked cows before, I’ll stay and help.”
“I’ll help, too,” Ellis promised. She’d never milked a cow, but she could carry buckets or do something useful. “Don’t worry.”
“It was a demon,” the woman whispered, grabbing at Ellis’ sleeve. “Like my grandmam talked about. Be careful.”
Ellis wondered if that grandmam might have been Galasiene like Captain Sirtris. He’d called Grandfather a demon, too. “You rest, ma’am. We’ll go help with the cattle.”
Ellis helped the woman lie down on the bed and followed a moment after Thomas. When she stepped out the house’s front door, the cows were all gone from the paddock. She peeked inside the barn where the cows were all neatly lined up, apparently waiting to be milked and much quieter now. The son was pointing out a specific cow to Thomas as he and Mr. Benianis worked. “That one next.”
Thomas had a stool in one hand and a couple of pails in the other. He went were directed.
“I’m going to go see if the captain has found her,” she called to Thomas.
He waved her on, so Ellis went around the back of the barn as Sirtris had done, coming out on the other side in time to see the captain emerging from a large mostly-underground building, Miralys Dantreon clinging to his arm.
She lifted her chin when she spotted Ellis coming toward them. “Are they hurt?” she asked. “Is anyone hurt?”
Ellis crossed the last of the distance to her cousin’s side. “They’re fine. A little stiff and sore, I think. Mrs. Benianis thinks a demon pretended to be you.”
Her poised and polished cousin wasn’t as calm as she was pretending to be. Her hair had come partially loose from its careful braiding, listing to one side, and Ellis thought she saw the beginning of bruises on the other girl’s jaw. Scrapes around her wrists, a red mark on the side of her neck. Miralys’ hands were shaking
“A demon?” Miralys sniffled. “I um…I don’t know what to say.”
Sirtris’ eyes lifted to meet Ellis’. “They’re unhurt?”
Ellis nodded. “Mrs. Benianis is lying down, and her husband and son are milking the cows.”
“I’m going to take Miss Dantreon back to her father’s house,” Sirtris said. He gave Ellis a stern glance. “Can you stay here, within Mr. Farrier’s line of sight, until I get back?”
“Thomas and I were going to stay to help with the milking,” Ellis said.
“Have you ever milked a cow?” Miralys asked, sounding a bit more normal. Curious now.
“I can fetch and carry,” Ellis said. “Good for something, at least.”
“I can stay and help, too,” Miralys said then, addressing the captain.
He turned his stern eyes on her. “No. I’m taking you home.”
Miralys opened her mouth to argue, but then made a graceful nod in his direction. “Perhaps a visit to the outhouse first?”
It was Sirtris’ turn to think better of quarreling. He gestured toward the back of the house where an outhouse was attached to the building. Miralys lifted her skirts and marched resolutely in that direction.
“Is she hurt, sir?” Ellis asked once her cousin was out of earshot.
Sirtris jaw worked. “More her pride than anything else. And thank you, Miss Dantreon. Without your insights, I might have been looking for days.
Someone in the village would have noted a lack of fresh milk in the morning and come here to check, but Ellis wasn’t going to point that out. “I’m glad I was useful, sir.”
“Carmeyon would never have forgiven me if something happened to her,” Sirtris said.
Miralys emerged from the outhouse, wiping her hands on her fine skirt. It was mostly unstained, Ellis noted, but a large portion of the hem in the back had ripped loose. Miralys presented herself in front of the two of them, her chin in the air. “I’m ready to go, Damon.”
The captain’s cheeks flushed red. “Do not call me that.”
“I have permission,” Miralys said airily and walked regally past them toward the side of the barn, torn hem dragging behind her in the dust.
Captain Sirtris sighed. “Cadet Dantreon, I would appreciate it if you could manage to forget you heard my name.”
“Sir?” Ellis wasn’t sure she understood what had just happened.
“I dislike my given name,” he said. “If you’d not tell others about it, I would appreciate it.”
That she did understand. Ellis was a boy’s name, usually, so she’d spent more than her share of time explaining it. “Yes, sir. I will…keep it to myself.”
“Let me leave you in Thomas’ charge then,” the captain said. “And we’ll reconvene tonight and discuss this turn of events.”
Ellis nodded and walked with him. “Grandfather never showed up. He said he would join us.”
Sirtris tugged on his gloves. “That was not lost on me.”